Turkey hits social media giants with $1m fines

Turkey hits social media giants with $1m fines
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech after cabinet meeting at Presidential Complex in Ankara, on Nov. 3, 2020. (File/AFP)
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Updated 05 November 2020

Turkey hits social media giants with $1m fines

Turkey hits social media giants with $1m fines
  • Social media giants that continue to flout the Turkish law face an additional fine of up to $3.6 million in the next 30 days

ANKARA: Turkey’s telecommunications regulatory authority on Wednesday handed down individual company fines of 10 million Turkish lira ($1.26 million) to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Periscope, YouTube and TikTok for breaching the country’s new social media regulations.

Controversial legislation that came into effect on Oct. 1 requires social media platforms with more than 1 million users to appoint a local representative in Turkey or face a hefty fine, an advertising ban and data restrictions.

So far, only Russian site VK has adhered to the ruling.

Social media giants that continue to flout the Turkish law face an additional fine of up to $3.6 million in the next 30 days, followed by an advertising ban in January next year, and then bandwidth being gradually slashed by up to 90 percent until May.

Sarphan Uzunoglu, an expert on communication technologies from Bilgi University in Istanbul, told Arab News that “such a restriction is against the functioning of the modern economy.” 

“These companies have been trying the limits of the state,” he added.

New social media regulations have been criticized as an attempt to control the country’s digital landscape by requiring all data on Turkish social media users to be stored in Turkey.

The platforms are also obliged to investigate claims on personal and privacy rights within 48 hours and will be held responsible for failure to remove content deemed “illegal” by Turkish authorities within 24 hours.

Uzunoglu said that firms hit with fines should have appointed a representative in Turkey long ago in order to better fight disinformation campaigns and actively handle judicial issues such as users’ privacy.

Experts believe that Turkey’s stance on press freedom and rule of law have encouraged social media companies to challenge the latest restrictions. The networks are used by an estimated 54 million people in the country, almost two thirds of the population.

Turkey has been ranked 154th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index, and the latest data from the World Justice Project placed Turkey 107th out of 128 nations in the Rule of Law Index.

Burak Dalgin, a technology expert and founding member of the recently formed breakaway Deva Party, told Arab News: “This new legislation was hastily passed by parliament without searching for any consensus and it is aimed at restricting the only public domain for free speech remaining in Turkey, which is the internet.

In a country where about 90 percent of conventional media is under governmental control, the social media legislation was passed only 16 hours after it came before the Turkish parliament.

Dalgin said that it was impossible to resolve a global problem with domestic laws that were not modeled on international practices.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Deva Party said: “We don’t want a repressive mindset in Turkey; we don’t want an impoverished and isolated country. This social media law undermined our country’s prestige at the international sphere.

“We accord high priority to pass such laws with a participatory approach. A technology ambassador should be appointed to Silicon Valley rather than opting for such restrictions.”

However, a report prepared by the ruling Justice and Development Party earlier this year proposed the creation of local digital platforms to protect national data and “cultural sensitivities.”

Isik Mater, a digital rights activist and research director at the NetBlocks monitoring group, told Arab News: “Social media platforms don’t open a representation office in Turkey because they see it as a risky country in terms of freedom of expression and state monitoring of the digital landscape.”

As the platforms rely on advertising revenues, any ban might force companies to assign a representative, experts say.

“However, it is unlikely that any social media company would agree to store Turkish users’ data in Turkish territories. In this way, it would be easier for the government authorities to reach personal data and abuse them,” Mater added.


New report shows extent of Turkey’s oppression of free press

Updated 05 December 2020

New report shows extent of Turkey’s oppression of free press

Demonstrators hold posters reading ‘Journalism is the insurance of democracy,’ in front of a courthouse in Istanbul, before a trial of jailed journalists. (AFP)
  • One concern about the new law is that it could push companies to comply with the government’s censorship trend by removing content upon request and handing over user data to the highly politicized authorities and courts of the country

ANKARA: An exhaustive new report published by the joint international press freedom mission to Turkey that took place in October reveals the extent of the country’s crackdown on media freedom in the country and calls for coordinated action from the international community to address the challenge.

The report, entitled “Turkey’s Journalists on the Ropes,” was funded by the EU and supported by 11 international organizations that focus on freedom of speech and human rights.

The mission took place against the backdrop of ongoing targeting of dissident media by the Turkish authorities, increased assaults on journalists critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime, and a newly introduced restrictive social-media law that is likely to further hamper the last remaining bastion in of independent reporting in the country.

The mission’s previous visit to Turkey, in September 2019, focused on the changes in trial proceedings, pre-trial detentions, the abuse of anti-terror laws to imprison dissident journalists, and potential changes that could be brought about by the Judicial Reform Strategy.

At the start of October 2020, 77 journalists were still in prison, one of the highest numbers in any country in the world. This year’s report drew attention to the controversial amnesty law announced earlier this year to ease overcrowding in Turkish prisons, which excluded journalists from its scope.

“Turkey’s press freedom crisis is worsening amid growing state capture of media, the lack of independence of regulatory institutions, and a new social media law designed to clamp down on the remaining spaces for free comment,” the report stated, adding that the lack of judicial independence in Turkey encourages the government’s crackdown on the press.

The report also criticized the new social media law, predicting that it would increase online censorship and cripple critical journalism in a space that had previously been open to the kind of independent reporting stymied by the government’s takeover of mainstream media.

HIGHLIGHT

The report, titled “Turkey’s Journalists on the Ropes,” was funded by the EU and supported by 11 international organizations that focus on freedom of speech and human rights.

One concern about the new law is that it could push companies to comply with the government’s censorship trend by removing content upon request and handing over user data to the highly politicized authorities and courts of the country — opening the way for further arrests of journalists who express dissident views online.

Last year, a total of 61,049 website domains were blocked in Turkey.

The politically motivated targeting of critical broadcasters in Turkey remains a significant problem, with regulatory bodies stepping up fines and broadcast bans on dissident TV channels and threatening to revoke their licenses if they receive a second ban, while pushing for advertising bans on critical newspapers.

“Growing authoritarianism, with the Turkish authorities trying to establish full control over the flow of information, is our main concern. They do this by different means — from jailing journalists to changing legislation to make it more difficult for journalists and media outlets to operate freely in Turkey,” Gulnoza Said, press freedom advocate and head of the Europe and Central Asia Program at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Arab News.

Between March and August alone, there were 13 incidents of arrest or investigation of dissident journalists reporting on COVID-19 cases. Since the beginning of this year, at least 22 journalists have been arrested.

Their trials are not being held publicly, nor are lawyers permitted to attend the hearings. The authorities claim this is because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but observers have called for the government to uphold the principle of fair trials.

In November, at least 30 press-related trials were held in eight Turkish provinces, with some 40 journalists being prosecuted. Nine of those journalists were accused of insulting state officials.

“The international community must step up its bilateral and multilateral efforts to bring Turkey back into the club of countries that respects the rule of law. Human rights issues, including press freedom, must not be held hostage to geopolitical developments,” the report said.

According to Said, international leverage should still be used, but there are fewer levers now than there were years ago when Turkey aspired to become a member of the EU.

“Today, there is disenchantment with the West — both the EU and the US — in Turkey. That was coupled with the US distancing itself from playing (a central) role in defending democracy and human rights, including press freedom around the world, over the last four years. I hope the new US administration will be more vocal defending free press and independent journalists in Turkey and elsewhere,” she said.

The mission’s report welcomed some positive rulings by the Turkish Constitutional Court concerning the protection of freedom of expression online and offline. “However, lower courts increasingly ignore these rulings; for example, they have refused to lift website blockings in some cases,” the report noted.