How Facebook risks becoming the long arm of Turkey's censorship regime

Turkey’s recently updated law regulating social media achieved its biggest victory last week when Facebook announced it was beginning the process of appointing a representative to handle in-country complaints.

The Law No.5651 on Internet Broadcasting and Publications was amended in late July 2020 by the Turkish parliament. In its revised version, the law required social media companies with more than one million daily visits from Turkey to appoint a representative to be stationed in the country. In the months since the revision was approved, companies including YouTube, VKontakte, TikTok and LinkedIn all announced they would comply with the regulation.

Facebook is the largest firm to declare its intent to comply, prompting an outcry from advocacy groups who saw it as a dangerous contribution to a growing censorship regime in Turkey. Sarah Clarke, the head of U.K.-based advocacy group Article 19 for Europe and Central Asia, saw the news as a foreboding development for user rights and privacy in the country.

“What we’ve seen is Facebook, along with YouTube and a number of social media platforms, go against their own commitments to freedom of expression and in effect become an instrument of state censorship,” Clarke told Ahval in a podcast.

Describing the law’s provisions as draconian, Clarke said she feared that social media companies were at risk of becoming the “long arm of Turkish authorities in implementing censorship.” To ensure this didn’t happen, she called on Facebook to make it clear how it would resist any attempt to undermine user privacy or engage in censorship.

In its initial decision where it announced it would send a representative, Facebook appeared to be conscious of the concerns that it could be forced to censor content.

“This decision does not change Facebook’s Community Standards, nor the global process for reviewing government requests, and we will withdraw the representative if we face pressure on either,” read Facebook's statement. “We remain committed to the Turkish community and maintaining free expression and other human rights in Turkey.”

However, Turkey’s new law calls for an escalating series of penalties. Facebook and Twitter, which hasn’t announced if it will send a representative to Turkey, have already been hit with more than $5 million in fines under the law. Other options include larger fines, upwards of 90 percent reduction in their broadband access which would in effect make most websites inaccessible, and an advertising ban. Facebook’s advertising rakes in 98% of its revenue and the social media giant currently has about 52 million users in Turkey.

Clarke acknowledged the difficult position of social media companies operating in Turkey, but was pessimistic about whether even the most well intentioned would be able to stand up for their users’ rights, especially given the lack of independence in Turkey’s judiciary. For years, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan purged the courts of professional prosecutors and judges in favour of perceived loyalists, particularly with the state of emergency that followed the failed July 2016 coup attempt, accelerating the decline of judicial independence in Turkey.

“We’ve seen an acceleration of repression when it comes to forms of expression, both online and offline,” Clarke said, adding that many of the state of emergency’s most repressive measures were codified into law after it ended in 2018. “The impact of the state of emergency is still very much with us because of these reforms. Many measures were placed on a legal footing, transcribed into law.”

International observers have criticised the erosion of judicial independence for years, but have been powerless to alter its course. However, faced with a struggling economy, Erdoğan announced that he would pursue judicial reforms in an effort to pacify concerns from international investors. It did not take long for limits to emerge; only weeks after the announcement, over 400 were detained connected to opposition parties, namely from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Clarke was cautious about any meaningful reform coming from the current government, and said current efforts were an attempt “to present window-dressing to the international community.” She insisted that only meaningful concrete action would show whether reform promises should be taken seriously.

Clarke’s branch at Article 19, named after the freedom of expression clause in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is also responsible for the wider region of Europe and Central Asia, and she sees Turkey’s repressive behaviour online as paralleling others in this area.

Belarus was responsible for the first internet shutdown in Europe in August following accusations that incumbent President Aleksandr Lukashenko rigged the vote in his favour. Russia has similarly acted aggressively against online critics, and just this week threatened TikTok for not removing content supportive of anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.

Turkey’s marks for internet freedom have been consistently poor. According to Freedom House rankings, Turkey is below even Belarus and ranks only three steps ahead of Russia. Clarke said this dovetails with authoritarian states recognising the risks social media present to their unaccountable rule.

“We’ve seen governments recognise the power of social media and broadened what was already historically repressive practices against the published press to the online sphere. So as to repress, control and censor forms of protest and organising,” Clarke said.

Meanwhile, the West has not been particularly vocal in criticising Turkey’s repressive behaviour online versus other examples where they took a stand on online freedom of expression. For example, Google was forced to abandon its so-called Project Dragonfly that would provide a censored search engine in China after it faced immense condemnation from the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration at the time.

On Turkey in comparison, Clarke said Western nations have opted for “realpolitik” that encourages reforms when they are pledged, but fails to hold Ankara to account when it backtracks. She pointed to Turkey’s refusal to respond to demands from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to release philanthropist Osman Kavala or former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş as proof that criticism alone wouldn’t suffice.

“As it stands,” Clarke said, “we are now in a scenario where Turkey has very clearly and very boldly refused to implement some of the most important decisions from the ECHR and we are not seeing enough consequences for their failure to implement these decisions.”