ANKARA: Turkey has stepped up its ongoing row with mobile messaging service WhatsApp over controversial privacy rules.
The country’s Personal Data Protection Authority on Tuesday followed in the footsteps of the Turkish Competition Authority by launching an investigation into the Facebook-owned platform over its new data-sharing practices.
WhatsApp has asked all its users to agree to sharing more personal data or be kicked off the site.
The Competition Authority on Monday opened a probe into WhatsApp and Facebook while suspending the app’s new data collection rules in Turkey. Meanwhile, rival WhatsApp messaging apps such as Telegram, Signal, and BiP have seen a surge in users joining up.
The Turkish watchdog is expected to re-evaluate the situation on Feb. 8 – the deadline set by WhatsApp for users to accept the new terms of service.
The latest saga comes in the wake of a recent clampdown by Turkey on social media platforms operating in the country. Legislation introduced in July has applied strict oversight of foreign social media companies with those having more than 1 million daily users forced to set up offices in Turkey or face gradual fines and reductions in internet bandwidth.
Cyber rights’ activists claim the law, which obliges social media firms to host Turkey-based users’ data in the country, could allow the government to tighten its grip on online content with tools such as access blocking or content removal.
In November and December, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok faced fines totaling $4 million each for refusing to comply with the legislation.
Erkan Saka, communications professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, told Arab News the reason behind the Turkish probe into WhatsApp was probably due to Facebook not appointing a representative in Turkey as the government had requested.
“This might have angered government circles. If the government were really interested in data protection it would not use WhatsApp until a few days ago for its own communication purposes,” he said.
Saka added that data privacy issues related to Facebook had been known for some time.
“The Turkish government is also acting in a very ambiguous way. The governmental authorities pushed for BiP, which is a disaster privacy-wise, and then Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself opened up a channel at Telegram, and now I see today that many pro-government trolls and columnists are also announcing their Telegram channels,” he said.
Erdogan’s media office announced on Monday that the presidency would move all its WhatsApp groups to encrypted messaging app BiP, developed by the country’s mobile network company Turkcell. BiP gained more than 1.12 million users in just 24 hours after the announcement.
However, as the Erdogan-headed sovereign wealth fund owns a majority stake in Turkcell, many Turkish users are concerned as to what extent their personal information will be protected as BiP also collects user data including contacts, location, call, and message information.
A transparency report from Twitter for the first half of 2020 revealed that Turkey was still a world leader in terms of censoring social media content, having the highest number of third-party takedown requests and withheld accounts and tweets.
Ussal Sahbaz, a technology expert, said: “Countries like Israel and New Zealand are considered by the EU as third countries which have an adequate level of data protection. Such a labeling increases the countries’ leverages against international companies.”
Sahbaz added that although Turkey was a founding member of the Council of Europe, Ankara had hesitated in implementing the Convention of the Council about the automatic processing of personal data and supervising of transborder data flows.