The adoption of a controversial law on the regulation of Internet news portals and websites by a majority of votes in Parliament late on Wednesday has boosted people’s concerns over Internet freedom and people’s right of access to information.
Tayfun Sırman, head of the Internet Publishers’ Association, said, “Turkey has woken up to a new morning with shame.”
In a written statement, she noted, “The judiciary has been bypassed and Internet censorship has been left to the initiative of the Telecommunications Directorate [TİB].”
According to the changes, the transportation, maritime affairs and communications minister will be able to block websites without first obtaining a court order. In addition, the TİB head will be authorized to block access to a web page on his own initiative in the event there is a request concerning the violation of the right to privacy.
Discussions during voting on the bill witnessed tense moments between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the opposition. While the AK Party voted in favor of the articles, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) blasted the bill as “censorship.” Despite a challenge from the opposition, the ruling party — which holds the majority in Parliament with some 320 seats — voted in the legislation.
The bill also includes a measure that allows for the recording of Internet users’ browsing histories and saves them for two years. The move has raised concerns over the government’s increasing encroachment into people’s private lives as well as into the different mediums through which people can express their social and political opinions.
However, the protection of personal data was one of the most important promises of the government in the constitutional referendum of Sept. 12, 2010.
The Turkish Association of Journalists (TGC), in a statement, said the new law should not be put into effect as it violates freedom of thought, freedom of press and protection of personal data and called on the president to veto the law.
The association also complained that the new law gives “extraordinary authority” to TİB to monitor people’s Internet use.
President Abdullah Gül on Thursday afternoon received Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications Minister Lütfi Elvan at the presidential palace. News sources said the minister briefed the president about the content of the new Internet law.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said earlier this week that the measures would “compound” Turkey’s already “dismal” press freedoms. According to the CPJ, “Turkey’s slide into Internet authoritarianism portends practical implications for [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s beleaguered administration.” The report referred to various comments from international observers indicating that this authoritarian pattern of Erdoğan’s may cause “long-term damage” to Turkey’s bid for EU membership and its relations with the US.
The government, however, rejects accusations of censorship, insisting that the bill is aimed to protect privacy, the family and children. Many journalists in Turkey argue that this worrisome bill is an attempt to hide possible future leaks of documents, as occurred during the Dec. 17 corruption probe.
According to Sırman, pressure, corruption and unlawful practices have become a daily phenomenon for Turkey while the AK Party deals blows to democracy. “Parliament has accepted a bill that brings about new rules for the prohibition of Internet publications. The Internet has been placed under the order and supervision of TİB on the pretext of protecting privacy,” he stated.
According to the Internet bill, Internet service providers will be fined while Internet access providers will be sentenced to prison if they do not remove content that is deemed to be illegal. The bill also includes changes to Article 6, which requires all Internet service providers to become members of an association of Internet access providers that will be established in the future.
Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Umut Oran said the bill will turn the Internet in Turkey into a “portal of the prime minister.” He also said the bill violates the Constitution as it violates people’s privacy. “The right to privacy will no longer exist [on the Internet]. Users’ Internet traffic and content will be saved for two years. In other words, whatever you write on Facebook, the bureaucracy will be able to see it immediately, and you will be monitored, followed, recorded and profiled,” Oran noted.
CHP parliamentary group deputy chairman Engin Altay said the bill will render the law in Turkey null and void.
The Internet law has been included in an omnibus bill. The remaining articles still have to be adopted as a whole. Once it has, the bill will be sent to President Abdullah Gül for his approval.
In May 2011, President Gül announced on his Twitter account: “In my opinion, there should be no restrictions on freedom. People should be able to surf the Internet freely.”
MHP Deputy Chairman Tuğrul Türkeş, in a statement, said Turkey wants a free Internet, not a blocked one, as well as free thoughts, not banned ones. “In Turkey, the press, the Internet and freedom of thought are under siege by the government and they are intimidated with every means possible,” Türkeş stated.
The Internet bill has been adopted in Parliament at a time when the AK Party government has been receiving strong criticism for a number of its practices, particularly in the field of the judiciary, which critics say amount to direct intervention of the executive in the judiciary. The practices have followed a corruption scandal that broke on Dec. 17 of last year with the arrests of businessmen said to have close ties to the AK Party government and several former ministers. Opposition parties say the practices seek to stifle an ongoing investigation into corruption.
On Wednesday, the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD) said the right to privacy is protected under existing laws and that introducing a new law that will allow blocking access to Internet content for the protection of privacy may result in problems in terms of preserving human rights.
Turkey already has strict Internet laws under which thousands of websites have been blocked. More than 40,000 sites are blocked, according to engelliweb.com, which tracks access restrictions. Access to the video-sharing site YouTube was blocked between 2008 and 2010 because it hosted content viewed as insulting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the modern secular republic just over 90 years ago.