Update: Turkey's Internet Showdown

Update: Turkey's Internet Showdown

There is no shortage of news about Turkey in the press recently. Between Gezi park protests last summer, and a currently unfolding corruption case, Turkish democracy is a hot topic. Last week Freedom House released a special report on Turkey entitled “Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media, and Power in Turkey” with the central finding being that, “Turkey’s government is improperly using its leverage over media to limit public debate about government actions and punish journalists and media owners who dispute government claims, deepening the country’s political and social polarization.”

However, Turkish media isn’t the only forum for public debate, and it isn’t the only area arousing international concern. Last week the Turkish Parliament passed a bill aimed at tightening control over the internet. This bill has further prompted the question: Is freedom of expression under threat in Turkey? It grants the government run Telecommunications Communications Presidency (TİB) authority to block individual URLs and content within a four-hour time period without a court order. Geoffrey King of the Committee to Protect Journalists observes that, “In the absence of a court order, it is unclear what public record will exist that censorship has occurred.” The new bill also mandates that internet providers keep users' data stored for two years and make it available upon request to authorities.

Internet monitoring in Turkey is not a new phenomenon. According to a 2013 study by the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), Turkey ranks second after China in demands to ban internet content. It is estimated that Turkey currently restricts accessibility to as many as 10,000 websites. In 2013 Google’s Transparency Report notes that 1,673 requests for content takedown were submitted by the Turkish government in the first six months of 2013. That number is more than three times to number of requests submitted by any other government.

According to the Hurriyet Daily news, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to criticisms of the new bill in front of a crowd of supporters Saturday in Istanbul, stating: “These regulations do not impose any censorship at all on the Internet ... On the contrary, they make it safer and freer. It is out of the question that people’s private data will be recorded.” However, it is apparent that the proposed amendment requires ISPs to hand over unspecified user information to the Turkish government upon demand. Concerns about the new legislation and its implications for private data have been strengthened by the recent appointment of Cemaleddin Çelik, an intelligence officer from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), as the new head of the TIB.

For now, organizations and non-supporters of the bill both domestic and foreign have pinned their hopes on Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who has ultimate veto power on Turkish legislation. Freedom House, Turkey’s opposition party (CHP), and Human Rights Watch, amongst other organizations, have all reached out to President Gul in an effort to convince him to veto the bill. {Turkish law gives President Gul two weeks to sign or veto the legislation.}



On February 18th, President Gul announced that he had signed the Internet bill into law via Twitter. Following this announcement his Twitter following dropped by 80,000; the action also prompted the hashtag #UnfollowAbdullahGul which trended for several hours. In a follow up to the signature of the bill Prime Minister Erdogan spoke to his party in Parliament, saying "Censorship is not coming to the internet, freedoms are not being cutailed. We are only taking precautions against imorality, blackmail, and threats." The European Union has expressed grave concern over the bills passing. The European Green Party posted on its website that, Turkey has internet laws that are restrictive by world standards, let alone European Standards."

President Gul stated that he gave his approval for the internet law only after the government said it would work to push amendments through parliament addressing the concerns of the president regarding several articles within the law.