The Turkish government plans to further tighten its firm grip on the Internet by monitoring user activity and blocking sites for "privacy violations." Activists are calling this a reaction to anti-government protests.
Turkey's Family and Social Policy Ministry submitted a bill to parliament this week that would allow authorities to block specific websites and keep a record of users' Internet activities for up to two years. This represents the latest attempt of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to curb web freedoms.
"Previously, there were a limited number of types of alleged illegal content that could be blocked in Turkey," said Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law at Istanbul's Bilgi University. "For example, child pornography, obscene materials, gambling-related content, encouragement of suicide or encouragement of prostitution and escort websites," Akdeniz told DW.
Akdeniz explained that now, the government is trying to extend this block to include violations of personal rights and also privacy. "That could include defamation, for example," he said.
If undesired videos featuring parliamentarians of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) were leaked, this new law could be used to block them.
"They are going to argue that if it's not permitted by the person appearing on the video, it will be a violation of privacy," Akdeniz said. If for example someone were to hypothetically leak a video involving the prime minister, "certainly that video is going to be subject to a blocking order," he explained.
This proposed law comes after Turkey has been hit by a huge corruption scandal, with Erdogan sacking hundreds of police officers and seeking tighter controls over Turkey's judiciary.
Strict controls since 2007
Turkey already has strict web controls in place. In 2007, a law came into force that banned YouTube for 18 months. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights found the law incompatible with article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression. Activists estimate that currently, some 40,000 websites are banned in Turkey.
According to data released by Google last month, Turkey is the country that has been submitting the highest number of requests to the search engine for removal of content. In the first six months of 2013, Turkey asked Google to remove 12,162 items - a tenfold increase compared to the previous six-month period.
Although the government claims it is protecting children from harmful content, activists say this is simply being used as a pretext. "They are using the 'save the children' card," Turkish Internet activist Ahmet Sabanci told DW. The government is attempting to justify its censorship as efforts to protect children from drugs, terrorism and the like, he said.
But the government has actually been seeking to limit people from expressing their opinions on the Internet since last year's protest at Gezi Park - and in light of the corruption scandal that continues to brew, Sabanci said. Since the Turkish government already exercises a tight hand over Turkey's traditional media, they are now trying to gain control of social media platforms and blogs as well, he said.
Broad new powers
The new legislation would allow the government to store data such as IP addresses, activity logs and e-mail headers for up to two years.
Akdeniz explained that the director of Turkey's Internet regulatory agency would be allowed to act immediately and unilaterally "in case of emergency." After 48 hours, those decisions would theoretically have to be approved by a judge.
Under the new law, the government would also be allowed to block individual URLs instead of entire websites. "They can block one specific Facebook profile or just one specific Twitter user," Sabanci said. This would make censorship a lot easier, he added. Erdogan has publicly called social media a "menace to society."
Internet providers would have to join a state-controlled association in order to continue doing business. "And they are also going to be compelled to block alternative access to sites already blocked," Akdeniz said - which means that a number or all proxy websites would be inaccessible.
Erdogan's AKP holds the majority in parliament, so passing this law is essentially "a done deal," he added.
The Republican People's Party (CHP) warned that the AKP government was trying to put down the free press, as well as silence critical voices online. "They rather hurriedly chose to release this so-called legal regulation which is obviously in conflict with both [Turkish] and EU laws," CHP's Vice President Emrehan Halici wrote in a message to DW. The opposition warned the government after the Gezi protests not to take away people's freedom of expression, he added.
Move toward China?
Critics fear that Turkey is moving in the direction of censorship-savvy China. A spokesperson for AKP rejected such comparisons, saying "Turkey is not China and will never be like China in this manner." The spokesperson added that it should be possible to have "some laws about social media and Internet media."
According to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Turkey also continues its tough handling of journalists, having incarcerated 40 in 2013. Turkey is "a country that jails journalists in a greater absolute number than any country in the world," CPJ's Internet Advocacy Coordinator Geoffrey King told DW. By way of comparison, China imprisoned 32 journalists in 2013.
Sabanci has vowed to bring another case to the European Court of Human Rights if the proposed legislation passes parliament.