WSJ: Turkey Debates New Law to Control Web Users

The Wall Street Journal: Turkey Debates New Law to Control Web Users

13 January, 2014,  By Ayla Albayrak

ISTANBUL—Buffeted by a corruption scandal that has snared dozens of his allies and rocked his administration, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to bolster government control over the internet ahead of a crucial election cycle, provoking a backlash from opposition politicians and business groups.

According to a draft law to be debated in parliament this week, Turkey’s communication ministry and the directorate monitoring telecommunication, or TIB, would be given sweeping new powers over Turkish internet service providers which would allow the government to access swathes of data without judicial approval. Under the draft provisions, web hosts would be obliged to store all the information of users’ online activities for up to two years and to provide this information to officials in Ankara upon their request. Officials could order access providers to block online content deemed illegal or to be “violating privacy” of a person, within only hours and without a court decision.

The controversial amendments, which would be added to the existing law regulating the internet usage, were hidden in a legislative package containing almost 130 articles on a wide range of issues. Turkey made almost 1,700 requests for Google to remove material from the web in the first six months of last year—more than three times any other country and a rise of nearly 1000% in one year—although most of its requests were turned down.

A representative of the Parliament’s budget committee said he expected the provision to pass by the end of the month. Opposition politicians and Turkey’s main business lobby criticized the proposal, which they said limited freedom of expression and risked damaging the country’s image.

The draft law comes amid a corruption probe which has rocked Mr. Erdogan’s government since December, prompting a wave of arrests and a cabinet reshuffle ahead of crucial local and Presidential elections this year. Opposition newspapers have cited leaked police reports saying that the probe is expected to broaden to include members of Mr. Erdogan’s own family.

Lawyers said the draft law would dramatically empower the government, enabling it to circumvent the existing judicial process.

“This means widening the existing censorship. It would be completely up to the subjective evaluation of the officials to decide whether the content breaches privacy or not. Normally, such an evaluation should be made by a court,” telecommunications lawyer Burcak Unsal, said.

Analysts said the law would dramatically broaden censorship by preventing information leaks which could harm the government in the midst of a political struggle prompted by the corruption probe. During the first wave of arrests, photographs and videos which claimed to prove the alleged of bribery and irregular relationships between officials were leaked on the internet.

“The government is trying to deploy a political control mechanism over the internet. People can see that these articles are a response to [antigovernment] Gezi protests and the current corruption investigations,” says Yaman Akdeniz, law professor in Istanbul’s Bilgi University, an active critic of internet restrictions in Turkey.

Ankara has frequently stated the need to “protect the family and children” from “harmful content” and the need to prevent online crime. The Communications Ministry refused to comment on the logic for drafting the new amendments.
Over the past five years, Turkish courts have actively blocked access to websites, including popular video sharing site YouTube, which was blocked for two years, between 2008 and 2010, by multiple court decisions. The latest popular website targeted courts was video-sharing site Vimeo, which was temporarily blocked after a court decision last Wednesday.

A year ago, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey’s existing internet law was against the convention of human rights and freedom of expression.
In June, millions of people took part in antigovernment protests across Turkey, using social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook to surpass government censorship in the mainstream media.

Despite having almost four million followers, Mr. Erdogan famously called Twitter “a menace” after the microblogging site became a focus for dissent.

In 2011, the government tried to introduce obligatory internet filters, which would have forced internet users to choose from a selection of filters before accessing the web. The government had to back down in face of widespread criticism and street protests all over Turkey.