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Online Free Speech Threatened in Turkey

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The future of free speech online in Turkey hangs in the balance as the Turkish parliament considers legal provisions that would suppress Internet speech. Turkey's blemished human rights record has already threatened the nation's bid to join the European Union, and these proposed measures would further undermine human rights values championed by the EU. The world is watching. Turkish lawmakers must vote against the proposal.

As president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to battle a high-profile corruption scandal and enters a new election cycle, the ruling Justice and Development Party is seeking to amend a set of Internet regulations, known as Law no. 5651, to give the government greater power over Internet content and expanded access to information about users. Because the measures are buried in a larger omnibus bill that will be submitted to a single vote, there is a real risk that the sweeping amendments will become law. The Parliament, which will likely vote within the next two weeks, should reject the amendments to Law no. 5651 and support the human rights of Turkish anti-corruption whistleblowers and ordinary Internet users alike.

There are a number of red flags for Internet users' free expression and privacy rights in the proposed measures. First, the amendments would require hosting providers to store data about users' online activity for a period of one to two years. Government officials would be able to request these records without seeking a court's permission. This sort of data retention mandate can discourage Internet users' willingness to share and access information online, particularly information about sensitive topics such as health, politics, and religion. Government access to rich stores of information about a user's online activity also raises significant privacy concerns, especially when this access can happen without judicial oversight.

The amendments also include broad content blocking provisions that could be abused to suppress legitimate speech, including information about government corruption. Under the proposed measures, the government could force service providers to block access to content that violates a person's "privacy of private life," a standard that has no clear definition. The provider would have to comply with the blocking demand within four hours, without prior judicial review of the content. This type of immediate takedown requirement is highly vulnerable to abuse - even with after-the-fact judicial review of the demand, it would allow the government and private actors to suppress speech essentially at will. This tactic could be used to dramatically restrict free expression online, disrupting reporting on breaking news or advocacy around time-sensitive events, including elections, trials, and legislative votes.

Amendments to Law no. 5651 are new, but the struggle for a free and open Internet in Turkey is ongoing. Courts blocked access to YouTube in 2007, but the ban was lifted in 2010. Just last week, video service Vimeo was also blocked temporarily after a court decision. In 2011, the Turkish government attempted to introduce mandatory Internet filters, but withdrew the proposal in the face of heavy criticism. And after nationwide protests last summer featured significant use of social media by activists, Erdoğan called Twitter a "menace" used to spread lies.

The issue of Turkish Internet blocking has even reached the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In 2012, following a Turkish court order to block all Google sites due to a single post, the ECHR ruled that the overly broad block violated the right to freedom of expression. The ECHR also determined that the Turkish legal system was insufficient to prevent abusive and arbitrary blocking. Two years after the ECHR ruling, the ruling party is not only failing to heed the warnings of the ECHR, but also proposing measures that actively defy them. It must reverse course and should focus its efforts on reform.

Turkey is an incredibly influential country that has the potential to bridge many of the divides between the East and West. The country needs a forward-looking Internet policy that respects free speech online and demonstrates its commitment to human rights. These proposals would be a major step back for the global Internet and the people of Turkey.

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