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New social media restrictions could be the final straw for freedom of expression in Turkey

July 2020’s controversial revisions to the “Internet Law of Turkey” (Law No. 5651) have now taken effect, likely accelerating the ongoing deterioration of freedom of expression in the region.

The amendments to Law No.5651 which present the greatest threat to free speech are:

Foreign social network service providers whose services are accessed more than 1 million times a day must now appoint a permanent Turkish representative.

It is now mandatory for tech companies to store data locally, making it easier for the Turkish government to demand companies hand over information about users.

Social media companies must now ensure they respond to requests to either block or remove content within 48 hours.

Noncompliance with these measures will result in fines of up to 40 million Turkish Lira, extensive advertising bans, and the reduction of Internet bandwidth by up to 90% – essentially blocking access to these sites.

Advertising bans have already been imposed on Twitter, Periscope and Pinterest after they failed to meet the requirements set out in the amended legislation.

However, other popular platforms, including YouTube, TikTok, and Facebook have ensured their compliance with Law No.5651, assigning representatives to whom courts can turn to make requests to remove content or provide the identity of users.

Numerous human rights groups have expressed deep concern regarding the legislation and its potential to turn social media into an agent of persecution. Milena Buyum, a representative of Amnesty International, was highly critical of Facebook’s decision to start the process of appointing a Turkish representative, stating that it:

“leaves them – and Google, Youtube and others – in serious danger of becoming an instrument of state censorship”

Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch, voiced concern with how the law will affect democracy in Turkey, saying that:

“It is essential for everyone who values and champions free speech to recognize how damaging these new restrictions will be in a country where an autocracy is being constructed by silencing media and all critical voices”

Sarah Clarke, Article 19’s Head of Europe and Central Asia, condemned the Turkish government’s use of “blackmail”, stating that tech companies:

“face either becoming the long arm of the state censorship or having access to their platforms slowed so much that they are in effect blocked in Turkey.”

With mainstream media heavily constricted following the failed coup d’état in 2016, social media is often seen as the last bastion of free speech in Turkey. In a country that ranks 154 on the 2020 world press freedom index and where at least 37 journalists remain imprisoned; the impact of these repressive measures on the rights of the Turkish people will likely be magnified.

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