Turkey: Gul Should Veto New Internet Rules

Changes Raise Privacy, Free Expression Concerns
February 6, 2014

(London) - President Abdullah Gul should veto a swathe of new amendments to Turkey’s already restrictive Internet Law.

The Turkish parliament on the evening of February 5, 2014, voted into law a series of measures that will tighten government control over the Internet, give it unfettered access to users’ online activities, and increase its ability to block online content arbitrarily, without a court order. Parliament passed the measures without any broader consultation or sufficient expert input.

“The last thing Turkey needs right now is more censorship,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “President Gul should veto these new measures to ensure Turkey does not violate its obligations to respect the right to access to information, freedom of expression, and privacy rights.”

The new law comes on the heels of protests in 2013 and a recent corruption scandal implicating senior government figures and their relatives, much of which is playing out online. The timing of the new law raises concerns that a defensive government is seeking to increase its power to silence critics and to limit arbitrarily any politically damaging material, Human Rights Watch said.

Turkey already has a restrictive Internet law (no. 5651), which Human Rights Watch has criticized because it allows for the wholesale blocking of Internet sites, including YouTube and Google sites, in an unlawful manner. Website blocking under the law resulted in a 2012 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey) that Turkey had violated its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights to respect freedom of expression.

The latest amendments allow the Telecommunications Directorate, a body controlled by the government, to pinpoint and order the removal of particular content (URLs) when there is a complaint that a posting violates privacy. The new law justifies new blocking measures as a move to “protect the family, children, and youth from items on the Internet that encourage drug addiction, sexual abuse, and suicide.” But its wide scope in some cases permits the Telecommunications Directorate to block content without a court order or the clear possibility of judicial review, raising concerns that the law extends the possibilities for government censorship.

The new law also extends data retention requirements to “hosting providers” – certain Internet companies, forcing them to collect and retain information about Internet users for up to two years. Internet companies are required to hand this information over to the government upon request, with uncertain protections for the right to privacy.

In a statement and briefing on the new provisions, Dunja Mijatović, the media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, found that these requirements “will enable the administration to request and collect data on all Internet users from Turkey without judicial review” and concluded that the changes have “the potential to significantly impact free expression, investigative journalism, the protection of journalists’ sources, political discourse, and access to information over the Internet.”

“The revision of an already restrictive Internet law is another step toward eroding free speech and the right to privacy in Turkey,” Sinclair-Webb said.