Turkey is poised to introduce drastic measures to control social media platforms.
The proposed legislation is drawing growing international criticism with social media remaining one of the few venues for dissent.
Infuriated by tweets mocking his son in law and daughter, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared this month, the "immoral [social media] platforms" would be "completely banned or controlled."
Under new legislation set to pass before Eid holidays later this week, the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Tik Tok will be compelled to open offices in Turkey by requiring them to assign representatives who would be subject to Turkish laws, including tax regulations.
"It builds upon and expands upon the current regime of controls," said Professor Yaman Akdeniz, co-founder of the Freedom of Expression Society, an advocacy group in Istanbul.
Until now, the social media giants have resisted Ankara's demands to open offices in Turkey. But in an innovative approach, proposed legislation uses the threat of ending net neutrality to force compliance.
New attempt to control
Social media platforms that fail to comply face cuts of up to 95% of their Internet bandwidth, making them unusable. "This is well thought out legislation on the government's part," said Akdeniz.
Previous attempts by Erdogan to tame social media have failed. Despite over 400,000 web pages banned and thousands of people prosecuted for social media postings, the Internet remains a powerful venue for dissent and independent news.
Internet tools like Virtual Private Networks, VPN, and proxies are widely used in Turkey to circumvent website bans. A three-year ban on Wikipedia was so widely flouted the government capitulated and lifted the restrictions. But controlling bandwidth could be more effective than blocking websites.
"This will be a very serious restriction which may not be easy to bypass with alternative ways," said Akdeniz. "Turkey's attempt to restrict access to social media platforms should not be underestimated."
Turkish authorities usually temporarily cut bandwidth to curtail social media use, in the aftermath of major terror attacks. In what appears to be a new coordinated approach, the government’s Internet regulators have been stepping up their efforts to curtail the use of VPN and proxies.
"A considerable number of VPN services are already blocked from Turkey, and more will be blocked," said Akdeniz.
Devlet Bahceli, leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, MHP, the parliamentary coalition partner of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, AKP, called for efforts to be stepped up to end the use of VPN and proxies.
Using tax laws
The president's director of communications, Fahrettin Altun, says the new legislation is about holding the social media giants financially accountable, accusing them of "uncontrollably making profits in our country and continue their operations immune to any tax obligations."
The European Union is also calling on social media companies to be more financially accountable. In a statement released this month, the EU commission unveiled plans “that extends EU tax transparency rules to digital platforms.”
But there is growing international concern over Ankara's plans. "If passed the new law will enable the government to control social media, to get content removed at will, and to arbitrarily target individual users," said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "Social media is a lifeline for many people who use it to access news, so this law signals a new dark era of online censorship."
Until now, social media platforms have walked a tightrope by complying with some — but not all — Turkish regulatory authority demands to remove sites and ban users. But under the proposed reforms, failure to comply would result in substantial fines that they would be obliged to pay if they open an office in Turkey.
"If the social media platforms decide to establish offices in Turkey," said Akdeniz, "then they will be compelled to remove the content as well as close down accounts subject to blocking and removal decisions involving defamation as well as other so-called personal rights violations."
Twitter, Facebook, or Tik Tok have so far commented on the proposed legislation, but analysts believe the companies have plenty of reason to oppose it.
Turkey's young net-savvy population is seen as a lucrative market for the social media giants.
The growing popularity of social media as an alternative to mainstream media, most of which is under government control, is seen as Erdogan's primary motivation behind the pending legislation.
"Even members of the AKP and MHP constituencies consider social media as their primary source of information," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners.
"One of the main reasons Erdogan could make so many mistakes and still stay in power is because he controls the flow of information reaching his entire voting segment, now he realizes those days have gone. People have moved to an alternative medium which he has no control," added Yesilada.
With the Turkish economy hit by the COVID 19 pandemic, recent opinion polls suggest Erdogan's AKP’s popularity is at historic lows, even though it remains the most popular party with Turkey's fractured opposition.
The proposed law opens the door to revamping Erdogan’s and his party’s image. "News websites, as well as social media platforms, will be compelled to remove content from their servers and news archives," said Akdeniz. "The idea behind this is to cleanse AKP's and the government's past injustices, corruption, and irregularity allegations."
Yesilada warns that even if the latest reforms succeed, the Turkish leader could yet pay a high price. "We have ample survey evidence that the young generation are hooked to social media, and they already have a poor view of Mr. Erdogan and his politics. Controlling social media will completely turn them off the AKP and Mr. Erdogan."