ISTANBUL -- Turkey’s parliament approved a law early Wednesday that gives authorities greater power to regulate social media despite concerns of growing censorship in a country where critical voices are already muted.
The law requires social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to maintain representatives in Turkey to deal with complaints about content on their platforms. Companies refusing to designate an official representative could be subject to fines, advertising bans and bandwidth reductions that would make their networks too slow to use.
Most alarming to the Turkish government's critics, the nine-article legislation also would require social media providers to store user data in Turkey.
The government says the legislation was needed to combat cybercrime and to protect users of social media. Speaking in parliament Wednesday morning, ruling party lawmaker Rumeysa Kadak said it would be used to remove posts that contain cyberbullying and insults against women.
Lawmakers against the measure termed it a “censorship law” that would further limit freedom of expression in Turkey.
Garo Paylan, a legislator from the pro-Kurdish opposition party that has had members arrested for alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants, said the law will further erode avenues for the government's political rivals to reach the public.
“This way, the opposition's last remaining windpipe will be cut," Paylan said.
The local representative of social media companies would be tasked with responding to individual requests to take down content violating privacy and personal rights within 48 hours or to provide grounds for rejection. The company would be held liable for damages if the content is not removed or blocked within 24 hours.
After steep fines and advertising bans, a court could order the bandwidth needed to access the social media network halved and then cut further if the company persists in not appointing a Turkey-based representative.
The storage of user information raises concerns about more than privacy, critics of the legislation said. Hundreds of people have been investigated and some arrested over social media posts on the COVID-19 pandemic, opposition to Turkish military offensives abroad or insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials.
In Turkey, 54 million of the country's 83 million people identify as active social media users.
A July survey by polling company Metropoll showed 49.6% of respondents did not support a law that could limit, shut down or fine social media companies over content. Some 40.8% said they would support it.
Istanbul resident Serkan Aslan, 23, said he supports some regulation of social media.
“In environments where people share their personal, daily lives like Instagram, I don’t believe interference is right,” Aslan said. “But on channels like Twitter, where people can easily be misled, to be honest, I think regulation is the right thing to do.”
But Tugrul Calis, 62, disagreed. An avid social media user, Calis said he wouldn't want to break the law.
“So what do you do? You automatically self-censor. And that’s the worst: A person not being able to freely share his or her thoughts, to censor one’s self,” Calis said
Cyber-rights activist, lawyer and academic Yaman Akdeniz warned: “These measures will have a chilling effect on Turkish social media platform users and people will be scared to use these platforms because Turkish authorities will have access to the users’ data.”
Rights groups and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights came out against the bill Tuesday ahead of the vote, with Amnesty International calling it “draconian.”
“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," Amnesty International's Andrew Gardner said.
Erdogan has demanded the law, vowing to “control social media platforms” and eradicate immorality.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. Turkey leads the world in legal requests to Twitter for content removal, with more than 6,000 demands in the first half of 2019, according to the company’s most recent transparency report.
More than 408,000 websites are blocked in Turkey, according to The Freedom of Expression Association, a non-governmental organization.
Akdeniz, who authored the association's 2019 report, said the law would lead to content removal from news sites as well as social media, in addition to previous measures of blocking access.
Online encyclopedia Wikipedia was blocked for nearly three years before Turkey’s top court ruled that the ban violated the right to freedom of expression.
The majority of mainstream media companies are owned by pro-government businesses, and critical journalists have been fired or jailed over the years. The Journalists’ Union of Turkey says 76 journalists and media staff are behind bars in Turkey.
The law passed after 16 hours of tense deliberations in parliament, where Erdogan’s ruling party and its nationalist ally hold the majority of seats. It is set to come into effect on Oct. 1 1 after a presidential approval and publication in the Official Gazette.
Ayse Wieting in Istanbul and Kelvin K. Chen in London contributed.