Turkey's AKP aims to curb opposition by tightening grip on internet

The Turkish government is determined to continue its battle against social media despite its decision in April to scrap clauses in a bill that would allow the authorities to exert direct control over online platforms.

There was a strong backlash against the April bill from opposition parties, but the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its coalition partner Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) are giving clear signals that their mission to censor social media giants like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, where the opposition can make its voice heard, is still going strong.

As soon as parliament opens in June, the bill will be brought back to the agenda.

Successive lawsuits, criminal complaints, detentions and arrests against the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) executives and members in various provinces are increasing rapidly. The government has already launched investigations and detained hundreds of Turks due to critical social media posts on the economy, military operations into Syria and most recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling coalition's law proposals show that it will maintain its attitude to ignore and intimidate the opposition. Accordingly, preparations for the series of amendments to the law, which will curb and restrict the opposition, have accelerated.

One of these amendments, proposed by MHP deputy Halil Öztürk, would require social media users to register an identification number to access popular online platforms. A similar version of this proposal, which was prepared by the AKP upon instructions of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was submitted to the parliament in May. Both bills are expected to be combined in the parliamentary commission and enacted with the combined votes of AKP and MHP lawmakers.

Öztürk's bill stipulates that all social media platforms with more than half a million daily users - this would include Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and others - must appoint a legal representative in Turkey to whom courts can turn to make requests to remove content or block users. If the social media platforms do not meet the conditions in 20 days, Turkish authorities will restrict their internet bandwidth by 50 percent, and if the platforms do not comply with the second request within 20 days, the authorities will totally block access to the platforms from Turkey.

The most striking part of the bill is that it would require social media users to register their ID numbers to access the online platforms. Social network providers will be obliged to protect users' ID information under the Personal Data Protection Law. They would not activate any account whose ID information does not match with the account information.

Öztürk maintains that the law will prevent anonymous or bot accounts from spreading fake news. Once the regulation is enacted, all accounts that do not have matching ID information will be terminated from entry into effect date. And, social media platforms that do not fulfil these obligations will be fined from 500,000 liras ($73,784) to 5 million liras ($737,831).

If the bill passes, personal data of Turkish users will be given to social media and digital media platforms, the majority of whom are based in the United States, according to IT expert Füsun Sarp Nebil.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday threatened to "strongly regulate" or even shut down social media platforms after Twitter applied a fact-check to two of his tweets this week.

"Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen," Trump tweeted.

Trump's warnings show an intent to use the power of government to target the opposition similar to his Turkish counterpart.

Meanwhile, another draft bill that is being prepared by the AKP is similar to the one that was discarded by the party from the omnibus bill. This would force all social media platforms with more than a million daily users to appoint a legal representative in Turkey who would be responsible for ensuring that the platforms meet the government’s demands.

The bill is expected to be submitted to the parliament next week. The AKP says it has been drafted because "some social media posts involve terrorism propaganda, drug trafficking, insults and abusive comments, thus, a legal representative in Turkey is necessary in order to take legal action against those crimes.”

According to the bill, social network providers will be obliged to respond to the applications over removing online content within 72 hours. Those who do not meet their obligations will be fined from 100,000 liras ($14,750) up to 5 million liras ($737,831).

Opposition parties cannot find a place in the media controlled by the government, but they can reach the public through online media platforms. Therefore, the ruling coalition likely aims to close the media to the opposition by controlling the internet and social media, to identify and pressure social media users through ID registrations, and to create a political atmosphere where no other voice is heard. Probably, after achieving all these goals, the AKP and the MHP plan to call for early elections which they believe would guarantee their rule for another five years.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.