The internet bill: Is freedom of expression under threat in Turkey?

What will remain of Turkey’s freedom of expression in light of the new internet bill?

Recent legal amendments threaten internet freedom in Turkey [AP]

Confirming public concerns, the Turkish Parliament passed an internet bill which takes the country into an Orwellian territory. The bill, which made it through with the votes of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) majority, brings the country much closer to China and Iran and threatens its already vulnerable accession process with the European Union.

But Turkey of 2014 is now much more different than the Turkey of the early days of AKP rule. It now looks more like a country being pushed into dark, uncharted waters, with its gains on freedoms and human rights being lost, and a sense of justice fully adrift.

The internet bill stands clearly as a concrete symbol for deepening regress. It is without a doubt a move to increase the harmful censorship over the free flow of information and ideas, in an already troubled domain.

‘Goodbye, internet freedom!’

The proposed amendments to the bill came a day after a massive graft probe on bribery and money-laundering was launched, in December 17, involving three ministers and their three sons. Since Turkey’s shackled media proved to be far too intimidated to report properly (as it did during the Gezi protests), much of the news and debate circulated on the internet, where some key independent news portals operate.

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Undoubtedly, the leaked materials – sound recordings, videos and documents – and opinions being expressed caused fury and panic within the government. With the new measures, it hopes to have “unpleasant content” blocked, and internet users frightened and dissuaded.

But the issue is that the amendments allow more powers for censorship to a law that already restricts freedom of speech. As Geoffrey King, Internet Advocacy Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), noted, these regulations “frequently facilitate pernicious censorship of online speech. For example, Law 5651 allows websites to be blocked based on ‘sufficient suspicion’ of certain crimes, pursuant to court orders that are freely granted.”

Turkey so far has censored more than 30,000 websites banned from access, most of which on arbitrary grounds.

According to the new changes, the transportation, maritime affairs and communications minister will be able to block websites without a court order. The head of the government’s sub-body, the Directorate of Telecommunications (TIB) will be authorised to block access to a web page on his or her own initiative in the event there is a request concerning the violation of the right to privacy.

In his detailed analysis, King writes: “Under the amendments, social media accounts or Web pages could even be blocked without judicial review under some circumstances. In the absence of a court order, it is unclear what public record will exist that censorship has occurred.”

The recently passed bill has prompted Ahmet Sabanci, a member of the Alternative Informatics Association, to write a farewell letter to the internet. Addressing the internet in second person in his lamentful blog, Sabanci explains what a user in Turkey will no longer be allowed to do:

We won’t be able to talk everything. TIB (Turkish Telecommunications Directorate) will have the power to censor everything they didn’t like. That means government can censor everything. They won’t be needing […] a court decision.

Talking about “harmful” contents with you will be counted as a crime. If we’ll talk about something “harmful” or host [this] “harmful” content, I’ll be a criminal.

ISP’s going to log everything we do together. They’ll keep these logs for years and government can check these logs whenever they want.

They’ll use URL-based censorship on you. That means, if my essays on Medium counted as “harmful”, other people can see Medium but they’ll never be able to read my essays on Medium. And most of the people won’t be able to notice this.

They’ll use DPI. That means they’ll see what we’re doing, whenever they want. We won’t be able to do anything in secret.

Confronting social media

The question now is, whether or not the Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who is an active user of social media (he has more than 4.5 million followers of his Twitter account), will veto the bill.

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Gul, who had met with Tim Cook and his team from Apple over a multibillion iPad deal for education only days before the vote, inevitably is under increasing pressure from many social groups.

He has two weeks to decide. But, his powers are limited. He may veto the bill, but if the Parliament “insists” and after another vote sends it back to him in the same format, he has little option but to ratify it.

Given the obstinacy of Erdogan and the parliament party make-up, it seems that amendments will pass. However, because article 90 of  theTurkish constitution binds Turkey to observe the European Treaty of Human Rights, the bill will have to go to the Supreme Court, which will decide on its constitutionality.

On the social level, the changes already add to existing tensions. The bill throws fuel into the fire of political polarisation and anti-government sentiments. At the same time, increasing online censorship runs contrary to the logic of a globalising economy, such as Turkey’s, and for which internet freedom is essential.

Internet penetration in Turkey is nearly 50 percent, and it’s even higher within the dominant urban segments of the Turkish society. In fact, Turkey ranks among the top five countries with the highest social media usage.

According to a recent survey of eMarketer, “the country with the top Twitter penetration rate is Turkey, with 31 percent”; it is followed by Japan and Netherlands. There are about 11 million Twitter users in the country in total.

Despite the popularity of social media among the Turkish population, some politicians have condemned its effects. The deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, went as far as expressing his contempt for social media and calling Twitter[Tr] a “disgrace”.

This is where the core of the prospective trouble is. How the government in the new legal order will be able to handle social media and what it will face as a reaction, nobody yet knows.

However, clearly, if the Erdogan government insisted on further  engineering the media, with direct or indirect interference into the editorial decisions and with suffocating measures over what is left for freedom of expression, it will alienate the democratic world and be subject to costly isolation.

Yavuz Baydar is an award-winning journalist, commentator and a former news ombudsman. He is a columnist with daily TZ, Istanbul, a blogger with Huffington Post and the co-founder of Independent Media Platform, P24. He covers Turkish politics and diplomacy, the Middle East and the EU, human rights, minority issues and media matters.