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Turkish Internet bill would deepen press freedom crisis

Riot police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators during a protest against Internet censorship in Istanbul on January 18, 2014. (Reuters)

The Turkish parliament is on the verge of voting on radical censorship measures that, if approved, would allow the government to block individual URLs without prior judicial review, mandate Internet data retention for periods of up to two years, and consolidate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) into a single association, among other changes. If passed, the amendments to Turkey's already restrictive Internet law would compound a dismal record on press freedom in the country, which is the leading jailer of journalists worldwide. Unsurprisingly, the proposed amendments are causing outrage among free expression activists and journalists in Turkey and around the world.

The proposed amendments were introduced a day after a high-profile investigation into government corruption became public in mid-December. The investigation reportedly involved business associates of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as the prime minister's son, and has led to the resignation or dismissal of thousands of government officials, according to news reports. The government's heavy-handed response has caused a crisis of leadership, which the reactionary new Internet proposals have exacerbated.

As CPJ has previously reported, Turkey's existing Internet regulations, codified as Law 5651, frequently facilitate pernicious censorship of online speech. For example, Law 5651 allows websites to be blocked based on "sufficient suspicion" of certain crimes, pursuant to court orders that are freely granted. The law has been used to block news websites such as Özgür Gündem and Keditör, as well as content-sharing websites such as YouTube and, earlier this month, Vimeo.

The proposed amendments would go far beyond even these censorious powers. According to an English translation of the proposed amendments reviewed by CPJ, they would allow the government to block individual URLs without prior judicial review based on a mere allegation that an individual's right to private life had been violated. An ISP must act upon the order within four hours of its receipt, with judicial review to follow within 72 hours, although the presidency may also issue a blocking order on its own if a delay would result in an adverse effect. Additionally, judges retain the power to block entire websites.

Although URL blocking is arguably more targeted than an order blocking an entire website, it is also far less transparent, which enables more insidious control of free expression. Under the proposed amendments, social media accounts or Web pages could even be blocked without judicial review under some circumstances. In the absence of a court order, it is unclear what public record will exist that censorship has occurred. And as Turkey's Alternative Informatics Association member Ahmet Sabancı told Index on Censorship, URL blocking would require the government to rely on deep packet inspection, a particularly intrusive form of online surveillance, to help ensure the effectiveness of its new approach.

The proposed amendments would also mandate data retention of between one and two years, the length of which would be determined by subsequent regulation. Data retention is dangerous to press freedom both directly, in that it makes disproportionate amounts of private data available to authorities, and indirectly, in that it chills robust debate about public affairs. The proposed amendments to Law 5651 would require ISPs to hand over unspecified user information to the Turkish government upon demand.

Moreover, the proposed amendments would further centralize government control of the Internet by forcing ISPs to congeal into a single corporate association, and by authorizing fines ranging from 10,000 to 100,000 Turkish liras, without sufficient guidelines for how such fines would be assessed.

"These articles are vague and might be used to put extra pressure on investigative journalists," Deniz Ergürel, a technology reporter based in Istanbul, told CPJ, noting that access to their online work could be blocked "and their online activities might be intercepted without any court order."

Though far worse than existing law, the proposed amendments are in some ways unsurprising; Internet freedom has been deteriorating steadily in Turkey for some time. According to Google's 2013 Transparency Report, the Turkish government submitted 1,673 content takedown requests to Google in the first six months of last year, more than three times the number of requests submitted by any other government. As Google Legal Director Susan Infantino noted in a blog post accompanying the report, the company saw a near-tenfold increase in the number of takedown requests from Turkey over the previous reporting period.

Turkey's slide into Internet authoritarianism portends practical implications for Erdoğan's beleaguered administration. As Orhan Coskun of Reuters points out, Erdoğan's assault on the rights of its Internet-using citizens is part of a broader pattern that may cause "long-term damage" to Turkey's chances of joining the European Union, as well as to the country's relationship with the United States, a key strategic ally. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Katherine Pfaff confirmed that the Turkish government's proposals are on official radar. "We have seen recent press reports of government decisions and potential legislation regarding Internet freedom," she told CPJ. "As the Turkish government evaluates its approach to Internet freedom, we hope the highest standards of openness and free expression will be protected."

Ultimately, though, it is the Turkish people with whom Erdoğan must contend. In recent days, protesters in Turkey have braved water cannons, tear gas, and less-lethal projectiles to demonstrate against the proposed Internet restrictions. Journalists have been equally defiant. As Ergürel told CPJ, "I'd say, if you want to popularize content, censor it! Censorship is the best way of promoting content. And there are always ways to overcome such bans." Then, somewhat more subdued, he said, "However, I think the real threat is when ISPs record people's online activities and keep them updated every second up to two years."

"This is not a proper thing to do in a democracy."

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