In Turkey, Twitter Is the Enemy of the People

Turkish parliament passed a law that would force social media giants to hand over user history, delete posts and more. But unlike previous laws, this one has a connection to Erdogan's foe Fethullah Gulen

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoganCredit:
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The countdown on continued operation of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in Turkey began on Thursday evening, after the Turkish parliament passed a law to supervise social media. According to the law, all foreign social media platforms with over a million daily users will have to appoint a representative in Turkey as a liaison between the government and the platform.

The goal is to shorten the process for removing content so that within 48 hours from the moment the Turkish Communications Ministry approaches a platform to take down content, it must do so. The government can ask for and receive, among other things, the history of specific users of social media platforms and also delete histories without explanation. A platform that does not fulfill these conditions will be fined up to $4.3 million, will not be able to post advertising and its bandwidth will be reduced gradually up to 90 percent.

The law, based on a similar law passed in Germany intended to fight hate content, murder threats and rape, gives the platforms until October 1 to comply with its demands. It sets five stages for implementation, with non-compliance of each stage linked to increasingly high fines and far-reaching sanctions up to the maximum.

Thus Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan completes his takeover of Turkish media in the wake of a 2018 law passed to oversee social media, through the appointment of 2,700 “supervisors” who follow more than 45 million users of social media platforms. According to a new report published by the International Free Expression Project, by 2019, some 450,000 websites were shut down, 130,000 URL addresses were deleted and 7,000 Twitter accounts were removed, as were tens of thousands of tweets, YouTube clips and posts.

But in contrast to the previous law, the government will no longer need to submit a demand to block users, it can simply do so by administrative order. The new demand to delete browsers’ histories stems from the desire to protect mainly leaders and senior government officials from embarrassing or incriminating information, such as photos where such senior officials are seen in the company of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who was once Erdogan’s ally but is now his bitter rival, defined as a terrorist and an enemy of the state, or reports of corruption in which Erdogan’s associates and even his family are allegedly involved.

The law also bans government officials from using WhatsApp or Telegram to send official documents or official information, and government ministries must open a new application for this purpose. Social media users can console themselves that the new law is more “moderate” than the previously proposed version which would have required all users to have a special identity number from the government to enter any platform.

This clause might well show up again in one of the next laws, which seems inevitable. That’s because Turkish users of social media are looking for ways to get around the restrictions, mainly by using VPN, although the existing laws prohibit internet providers from using a long list of private alternative social media platforms.

Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen sits at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, United States, March 15, 2014.Credit: AP

The new law presents a serious dilemma to social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, which will have to decide whether to obey the law, thus joining Erdogan’s campaign against freedom of expression, or pull their business from Turkey, a step that could cause them huge losses.

At the same time, Turkey continues to benefit from the indifference of European countries to his persecution of freedom of expression and human rights activists. At the beginning of July a court in Istanbul convicted the honorary president of Amnesty International in Turkey, Taner Kilic, and the director of the Turkish branch of the organization, Idil Eser, of membership in and abetting a terror organization. Messages were found from members of the group that were sent by the application Bylock, which the authorities claim is used mainly by supporters of Fethullah Gulen, whose organization, as noted, is defined as a terror group.

The trial, which human rights groups called “shameful,” did earn censure by the European Union. But in 2016, following the failed rebellion in Turkey, the EU took no steps as thousands of human rights activists were arrested and jailed, hundreds of judges were dismissed and about 150,000 public servants were fired. So it seems that this time as well, the EU is not exactly the address for complaints about suffocating the web and social media.

This is where the paradox lies in Turkey’s application to join the EU. The EU requires Turkey to meet European standards as a basic condition of membership in that prestigious club. But as long as it acts like a Middle Eastern Arab country in terms of human rights, it will continue to wait outside the door. Actually, though, if the EU does decide to make Turkey a member, it will apparently have powerful leverage to demand that Turkey follow its rules.

The result is that damage to human rights, freedom of expression and damage to the justice system in Turkey will serve the EU as a convenient pretext to keep an Islamic state from penetrating the organization. This is at a time when an “enlightened” member state like Viktor Orban’s Hungary – where the definition of democracy is taken from an entirely different lexicon than that of Europe – dismisses the basic principles of the EU as “leftist liberalism” and uses methods of fighting the media and political opponents that resemble those of Erdogan.

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