Turkey Tightens Its Grip on the Internet

Jan 14, 2014 at 5:00 PM ET

Freedom of expression isn’t really Turkey’s thing. In fact, when it comes to penning an opinion or hitting the streets to voice your beliefs, the government makes it tough, especially for journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey jails more reporters than any other country.

One of the few places left for real, open debate is online. But now the government wants to deliver a crippling whack to Internet rights.

A new bill brought to parliament by Turkey’s ruling conservative party, the AKP, could close even that window. If this becomes law—and since the AKP controls the majority of parliament, it very likely will—the proposal would give the country’s transport minister and its communications agency the right to shut down a website without even having to take the issue to court. According to the bill, Internet service providers would have to block a site within four hours of being ordered to do so by the transport minister, a court or the telecommunications agency.

The proposal’s timing couldn’t be more eyebrow-raising. It was submitted on Dec. 17, the day the nation’s biggest corruption scandal in decades exploded. The case, which began with the arrests of figures close to Erdoğan’s government, has pit Ankara against its Islamist former allies. More tellingly, the AKP could use the new law to block incriminating leaks on the Internet.

“The current proposals are a knee-jerk reaction to the ongoing corruption investigations, as well as to the Gezi protests,” says Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul, referring to the mass demonstrations that shook Turkey last June. “With these proposals, the government is trying to lay the foundation for a political control system for Internet content. The government will aim to control the circulation of potentially damaging content and leaked documents with these new provisions.”

Outcry has been massive on Twitter:

“Internet censorship is a big step towards democracy, of course our idol is North Korea.”

“According to the AKP’s Internet censorship draft, the sites people go to will be under surveillance.”

“The existing Internet law is very limiting” for users, says Serhat Koç, a young lawyer and one of the founders of Turkey’s Pirate Party, which campaigns for Internet freedom. “There are thousands of closed websites. But with the new amendments to the existing law, even the courts could be bypassed.”

The Turkish government can currently close a website to protect “family, children and youth from drug addiction, sexual harassment, suicide or other bad habits.” But the proposed amendments extend the limitations to violations of privacy and personal rights—areas far more open to interpretation. Today the most prominent prohibited sites feature porn or anything the government considers linked to the PKK, an outlawed Kurdish organization

Under the new law, Internet providers would be required to join a state-controlled association and keep more than a year’s worth of data for the government on users’ online activities. ISPs that refuse will face fines. If they don’t agree to become a member of the association, they will be barred from doing business.

Koç says that now people can access censored content by merely using proxy servers outside the country, evading Turkey’s controls. If the proposal becomes a law, however, this loophole would be closed, too. “When Turkey blocked an entire website, it made the government look bad,” Koç says, “but now with the new changes they could censor direct URL sites like one Facebook or Twitter user.” He says the scary part is that, by taking down individual pages rather than entire sites, users won’t even know that any government censorship has even taken place.

When Turkey enacted its current Internet law in 2007, it banned YouTube for 18 months. According to a Google report on transparency, the number of removal requests by the government skyrocketed 966 percent—to 12,162 items—from January to June last year, compared with the previous six-month period. That’s more than three times the amount of any other country.

Osman Çoşkunoğlu, a former MP for Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party, tells Vocativ the European Union is already complaining about limitations on Internet freedom in Turkey, and this latest proposal will heavily feature in the annual reports the bloc issues about Turkey’s progress towards EU standards.

“The EU is warning about this issue, but it looks like the Turkish government does not care what the Western world says,” he says.

Professor Akdeniz agrees: “If these provisions become law, Turkey will become closer to China in terms of Internet policy and will have one of the most restrictive Internet policies within the pan-European region.”

Still, Koç holds out hope that despite all the power and influence it can muster, the government will not prevail in the end. “The Internet is not a static field that the state can win the battle against,” he says. “It is a dynamic platform. If they close one site, another one will be opened right away. This law will annoy people and push them underground.”

“But of course we are here to fight against censorship,” Koç continues, “because we deserve a free Internet.” A big demonstration against the proposed censorship is scheduled for Jan. 18.