Turkish authorities should withdraw newly announced sanctions on social media companies for declining to comply with the terms of a draconian social media law passed this summer, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.

The law obliges social media companies to appoint Turkey-based representatives as part of Turkey’s effort to strengthen state control over online platforms, which are critical spaces for journalism amid the country’s press freedom crackdown. Leading global social media companies have so far not appointed such representatives, with some saying expressly they will not do so.

In response, Turkey’s deputy minister of transport and infrastructure announced this week on Twitter that the Information Technologies and Communication Authority (BTK) had imposed a fine of 10 million Turkish liras (approx. 1 million euros) each on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Periscope and TikTok after a 30-day compliance deadline lapsed.

IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said the developments underscored the need for Turkey to withdraw the social media law, which was passed in July and entered into force on October 1.

“Turkey’s draconian social media law was put in force to restrict one of the only free spaces left for journalism and expression critical of the government”, he said. “The refusal now of social media companies to go along with this digital censorship campaign shows that the law is not just a threat to free expression, but it also practically unworkable. Turkey should withdraw these excessive fines and repeal social media law.”

The law took shape after President Erdoğan stated earlier this year that the government was working on a legal framework that would “abolish such [social media] platforms completely or to have them controlled’’, claiming this was in response to users’ critical comments on Erdoğan’s new-born grandson.

Several concerns have been expressed over the potential consequences of misuse of the law. The law, which was originally a set of amendments in the existing “Law 5651 on the Arrangement of Internet Publication and Combating Crimes Committed through these Publications”, forces social media platforms with more than one million users to store user data in Turkey, which makes it available for state and judicial authorities to access on request. It requires social media platforms to respond to individual or institutional applications to implement blocking and content removal requests within 48 hours, while a requirement to implement a court order or within four hours remains unchanged.

Turkey has long pressured social media companies to take down content. But obligating those companies to establish a representative in Turkey would vastly strengthen the country’s ability to legally compel removal and therefore impose its restrictive view of free speech online. The law foresees a set of gradually increasing sanctions if this obligation is not complied with, starting with fines from 10 million Turkish liras to advertisement bans. At a final stage, the bandwidth capacity of network providers would be dropped by 50 percent and then 90 percent.

In early October, Facebook and Instagram reportedly announced that they would not establish local representation in Turkey. Other big tech companies such as Google and Twitter have remained silent but do not appear to have appointed representatives either.  If these companies continue to not comply with the law in the next 30 days, the sanction will increase to a 30 million TL fine.

On July 29, 2020, the main opposition party CHP announced that they will apply to the Turkish Constitutional Court requesting annulment of the provisions. It is expected that, if social media companies continue to disregard the local representation requirement, bandwidth sanctions could be applied in late April. It is unknown when the court will issue a decision.

Turkey has a long record of forcibly closing media outlets and blocking access to news articles since the 2016 coup attempt. While hundreds of journalists in Turkey from critical news agencies are already being prosecuted for doing their job, this law would make it easier for the authorities to silence their voice and censor critical content.