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Turkey clamps down on social media

Turkey has adopted a new law that gives the government far more power over social media content, in President Erdogan's latest squeeze on freedom of speech.

The new rules require companies such as Facebook and Twitter to store data within the country and appoint a local representative to deal with any content removal requests. Failure to remove or block content within 24 hours will mean fines, blocking of ads, and bandwidth throttled by 90 per cent or more, effectively closing services. 

The new law has drawn widespread criticism from human rights organisations, with Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch, describing it as 'a new dark era of online censorship'.

Curbing freedom of speech

It's the latest move from a government that has steadily moved to limit freedom of speech, both on- and off-line, since Erdogan's rise to power 18 years ago. In 2016, following a failed military coup, more than 150 media outlets were shut down and many journalists jailed. 

Meanwhile, social media content has been increasingly policed, with internet services cut across southeast Turkey and social media services throttled last October. By the end of last year, more than 400,000 Turkish sites were blocked.

More than 500 people have been detained in the last three months for social media posts perceived as undermining the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. And according to Twitter's latest transparency report, Turkey demanded more content removal than any other country in the first half of 2019, with more than 6,000 requests.

"Journalists already spend years behind bars for their critical reporting and social media users have to police themselves in fear of offending the authorities," says Amnesty International’s Turkey Researcher, Andrew Gardner.

"If passed, these amendments would significantly increase the government’s powers to censor online content and prosecute social media users. This is a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression online and contravenes international human rights law and standards."

Turkey is not alone in demanding that social media companies store data locally - indeed, it's even an issue in the EU, following the collapse of the Privacy Shield rules over EU/US data transfers. China and Russia have similar rules, while Brazil and India are debating the issue.

The problem is that such laws can easily be framed in terms of data protection - a valid concern. However, they also allow restrictive governments to control content under the guise of protecting their citizens.

"Requiring companies to establish a legal presence and store data on local servers is an attempt to gain leverage. This move is part of a global trend of governments passing data localisation laws to curtail human rights online," says Adrian Shahbaz, director for technology and democracy at Freedom House. 

"It’s not about protecting users — there are better ways to achieve that — this is about governments gaining new powers to police what people say and how they say it."

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