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Online content regulation in Turkey is characterised by extensive removal of material that has resulted in a large number of Turkish and international websites being blocked in recent years. Further, the Turkish government recently introduced a Social Media Bill, implementing a wide range of new regulations and steep penalties for social media companies, which critics say poses further threats to online freedom of expression in the country.
Relevant national bodies:
Key takeaways for tech companies:
Anti-Terrorism Law and defamation offenses
According to the Freedom House 2020 assessment on Turkey, there are no laws that specifically criminalise online activities. However, many provisions of the criminal code and other laws, such as the Anti-Terrorism Law, are applied to online as well as offline activity. Article 7 of Turkey’s Anti-Terrorism Law states, “those who make propaganda of a terrorist organisation by legitimising, glorifying, or inciting violent methods or threats” can be imprisoned for one to five years. This law has been criticised for its broad definition of terrorism, which has allegedly been exploited by courts to prosecute journalists and academics who criticise the government with no clear links to terrorist activities.
Online content regulation
In May 2002, the Turkish Parliament passed the Bill Amending the Supreme Board of Radio and Television and Press Code (Law No. 4676), which contained provisions that would subject the internet to restrictive press legislation in Turkey.
In May 2007, the government enacted the “Internet Law 5651” to regulate Internet and online service providers. The law regulates the liability of Internet intermediaries, including content, access, hosting service providers and “mass use” providers, such as “internet cafes”, in Articles 4, 5 , 6, and 7. It therefore defines the responsibilities of content providers, hosting companies, public access providers, and ISPs. Although the law was introduced to hinder the spread of harmful content online, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) it has been used to block LGBT community forums, independent media websites, and news sites with a pro-Kurdish political line. In addition, global websites hosting large volumes of user-generated content, including YouTube, Twitter, Blogspot, WordPress, Vimeo, and Google Groups, have been blocked entirely on occasion, even if “only a fraction of the content was deemed subject to blocking”. For example, following a corruption scandal that erupted when multiple conversations from top officials were leaked, authorities blocked access to Twitter and YouTube.
In February 2014, the law was amended, broadening powers to block content. This included requiring ISPs to consolidate into a single association as well as to block access to specific URLS within 4 hours of receiving an order. The amendments also expanded the TIB’s powers to issue administrative blocking orders if any individual or legal entity alleges a privacy violation or if the content is considered “discriminatory or insulting to certain members of society”. Non-compliance to these regulations result in high fines. These regulations were met with criticism, such as from HRW, who stressed that “although such blocking orders must be reviewed by a court within 48 hours, the grounds are so broadly and vaguely defined that they allow discretion for abusive application and interpretation”. A typical concern is that high fines coupled with broadly and vaguely defined grounds might lead to companies erring on the side of overly-cautious content removal or blocking, which could lead to heightened censorship and infringe upon freedom of expression online.
According to HRW, as a consequence of the No. 5651 law, Turkish authorities have blocked tens of thousands of Turkish and international websites over the last few years.
New Social Media Bill
On October 1, 2020, Turkey’s newest legislation for social media, “Law regarding the regulation of publications made in the Internet environment and the fight against crimes committed through these publications” came into effect, amending Law No. 5651. The law introduces strict regulations for social media companies, coupled with steep fines. This has been criticised by many human rights advocates for having potential negative effects on freedom of expression. According to HRW, this new social media law “paves the way for greater online censorship”. HRW further argues that “Turkey’s courts and regulatory bodies lack the independence necessary to prevent abuse of the law”, and that “in practice the law therefore could serve as a new tool to silence critics online”. The Global Network Initiative (GNI) has expressed concern as well, stating that this law “contains several problematic provisions that are likely to significantly complicate the operation of social media services in Turkey and challenge the ability of Turkish citizens to freely exercise their rights to freedom of expression and privacy”.
Regulation in practice: extensive online blocking
According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom on the Net assessment, the Turkish constitution and laws “fail to protect freedom of expression and press freedom online”, as online journalists and users frequently suffer civil and criminal penalties for legitimate expression. The state of emergency enacted in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt, which lasted until July 2018, allowed President Erdoğan to publish decrees without judicial oversight. This included decrees that were used to block websites, shut down communication networks, and close civil society organisations as well as news outlets. In particular, Decree No. 671 (2016) amended Turkey’s Law on Digital Communications to empower the government to take “any necessary measure” on the grounds of “national security, public order, prevention of crime, protection of public health and public morals, or protection of the rights and freedoms” established under Article 22 of the Turkish constitution. It also requires any company that provides digital communications to enforce government orders within two hours of receiving them. Even though the state of emergency has not been in effect since 2018, the decree remains.
Beceni Yasin, Sevim Tuğrul, Aslan Erdem, Zengin Selen and Can Akdere Kaan (2017) Communications: regulation and outsourcing in Turkey: overview, Practical Law
Freedom House (2020), Freedom on the Net 2020: Turkey
Global Network Initiative (2020), Content Regulation And Human Rights
Global Network Initiative (2020), GNI Statement on Proposed Social Media Bill in Turkey
Human Rights Watch (2014), Turkey: Internet Freedom, Rights in Sharp Decline
Human Rights Watch (2020), Turkey: Press Freedom Under Attack
McKernan Bethan (2020), ‘It’s a war on words’: Turks fear new law to muzzle social media giants, The Guardian.
The Center for Internet and Society: Stanford Law School, Law No. 5651, May 23, 2007, Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by means of Such Publications Zeldin Wendy (2014), Turkey: Law on Internet Publications Amended, Library of Congress