ARTICLE 19 and İFÖD are extremely disappointed by Twitter’s decision to establish a legal entity in Turkey in compliance with the country’s repressive social media legislation. The decision, which follows those by YouTube, TikTok and Facebook, means Turkish social media users’ freedom of expression is under even more severe threat, with companies essentially making themselves an instrument of state censorship. The decision by companies to comply with the measures goes against the demands of Turkish and international civil society.
We call on Twitter and other social media companies to urgently clarify how they will mitigate the serious impacts on users’ freedom of expression that will result from this decision. We urge Twitter and other social media companies to challenge content removal requests from the Turkish authorities and other requests which violate international human rights standards.
Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19, said:
“Despite their apparent commitments to users’ rights, all four of the major social media platforms have now shown their willingness to put profit above protection of their users. The severe restrictions for freedom of expression already in place in Turkey will now be worsened, with the Turkish state gaining even more control over what its people say online.”
“Social media companies are essentially asking us to trust that they will protect freedom of expression and privacy of their users, while providing very little explanation as to how they practically intend to do this when they will be effectively compelled under the law to unfairly remove content. By not fighting against this draconian law, they risk making themselves complicit in human rights violations. We urge all social media platforms in Turkey to resist the removal orders, legally challenge them and fight back strategically under any pressure from the Turkish authorities.”
Yaman Akdeniz, co-founder of İFÖD (Turkish Freedom of Expression Association), said:
“Twitter was the main target of the Turkish authorities since the Internet Law was amended. Now Twitter risks becoming the long arm of the Turkish law enforcement regime and will eventually become complicit in human rights abuses in Turkey. Like the other companies, Twitter will not be able to resist the demands of the Turkish authorities for long. In the absence of due process and an independent judiciary, Turkey is one of the worst offenders in terms of Internet censorship. This is a flawed decision that will backfire.”
Amendments to the Internet Law, passed in July/August 2020, require social media companies with more than 1 million users in Turkey to establish an office presence in the country and locally store data about Turkish users. Failure to comply with the requirement to open an office would be met with throttling of the platforms within the country, as well as large fines. With the amendments, social media companies are required to respond to court removal and/or blocking orders within 24 hours and individual users’ takedown and/or blocking requests within 48 hours. Social media companies face fines of 5 to 10 million Turkish Lira if they fail to respond to takedown and blocking requests within the time specified and compensation for damages incurred.
These requirements present serious risks to freedom of expression in a context where state repression is embedded in a series of broad and vague laws, and the government is constantly expanding its efforts to stamp out dissent. The government will be able to require the take down of content it deems objectionable, often on the basis of repressive laws, and companies will have little recourse to challenge these takedown orders in a judicial system that is not independent and is frequently used to crack down on dissent. Turkey is already among the top countries globally when it comes to issuing take down requests – in the first half of 2020 it was responsible for 10% of all global government takedown requests to Twitter. Local data storage is also likely to enable greater surveillance by the Turkish authorities of journalists, human rights defenders and opposition voices.
Just last week, opposition MP Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu was stripped of his status as a member of parliament following a previous conviction for sharing ‘terrorist propaganda’ online – simply for sharing a news story on Twitter. The risks to journalists, activists, and ordinary Turkish people seeking to share ideas and information online is already clear, and the decision by companies including Twitter to comply with the government’s demands will mean this only worsens.
Access to social media is an important tool for the exercise of freedom of expression, but when that access is at the cost of greater surveillance and repression by state authorities, it becomes a threat to this right. Companies must therefore pay more attention to their operating environments and the view of local activists and civil society when responding to this type of legislation.
We repeat our call for social media platforms in Turkey to resist the removal orders, legally challenge them and fight back strategically against any pressure from the Turkish authorities. They must transparently demonstrate how they intend to protect freedom of expression, including through clarifying their decision-making process regarding removal requests.