The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today called on Turkish authorities to withdraw a sweeping new draft bill regulating social media. The bill, which would greatly expand digital censorship in Turkey, was passed by the Justice Committee of Turkey’s parliament today.

‘’The Proposal for the Amendment of the Law on the Arrangement of Internet Publication and Combating Crimes Committed Through These Publication’’ prepared by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their ally Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) introduces several requirements and obligations on social network providers that share personal data on individual account with the judiciary. This could accelerate the government’s efforts to investigate and prosecute critical voices, including independent journalists.

The draft bill as presented to the Parliament on July 22 aims to reshape the definition of social media networks and proposes extensive new requirements on networks with a reach of more than one million users per day, including the obligation for platforms to assign a ‘’Turkish national’’ as their representative in the country.

The bill would require social media networks to implement blocking and content removal requests within 4 hours. Providers who do not implement the requests in time face fines of up to ten million Turkish Liras (approx. 1,260,000 euros) and a ban on advertising for up to three months. Moreover, the network’s bandwidth capacity can be dropped first to 50 percent and then to 90 percent off.

IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen called for the withdrawal of the regulation.

“Social media networks are one of the last safe havens for Turkey’s independent journalists – many of whom were hounded out of their positions at media houses now under government control – to do their jobs”, he said. “The Turkish government is now seeking to snuff out free expression online. This bill’s draconian penalties amounts to blackmail of providers, who we fear will be pressured into removing content and handing over user data based on Turkey’s arbitrary and boundless definitions of terrorism and other crimes that are already used to persecute journalists.”

“We urge Turkey to withdraw this bill, which follows in the footsteps of other authoritarian regimes unable to tolerate a free online space.”

The draft bill would force the networks with more than one million users’ reach per day to store users’ data in Turkey, making it easier for authorities to access these data. A “Digital Media Commission” was already established as part of the implementations in the draft. The commission will monitor people’s internet use as a watchdog.

Turkey has been arbitrarily targeting online news media and news articles with court rulings on access blocks. Local courts’ swift rulings to block critical news content of the governmental officials have increased in recent years. The government’s approach to integrate and legitimize censorship into social media platforms, a last bastion for people in Turkey to share their views, is extremely worrying for preserving the freedom of expression.

Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic also called yesterday on the Turkish government to withdraw the draft legislation and ask for review of the current internet law about which she submitted her observations on November 25, 2019.

‘’The way Turkish administrative authorities and courts routinely have recourse to internet blocking is unacceptable in a democratic society and not compatible with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects freedom of expression,” Mijatovic said in her submission.

IPI fears that the new regulation will be used as another tool in the hands of the government to remove the critical and dissenting content. The proposed new regulations are expected to advance Turkish authorities’ efforts to force social media companies to either delete content or hand over user data.