Turkey moves towards 'Shanghai Criteria' on internet 'freedom'

An amendment to Law No. 5651 on cybercrimes, recently introduced by a deputy from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), could pave the way for the government to censor the Internet and social media as well as profile Internet users, analysts told Today’s Zaman.

According to the changes, which were included in an omnibus bill on the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, the minister of transport, maritime affairs and communications as well as the head of the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) will be able to block websites without obtaining a court order.

The bill also includes a measure allow the recording of Internet users’ browsing histories and save them for up to two years. “In this way, infrastructure for the countrywide profiling of citizens will be put into place,” Halıcı said at a press conference in Parliament.

Noting that the bill allows officials to block IP addresses and web URLs, the CHP deputy chairman said: “That is, the government will be able to easily ban a video that it does not like on YouTube.”      

The law, submitted by AK Party deputy Zeynep Karahan Uslu, calls for bans introduced by the minister of transport and the TİB chief to be implemented within four hours. With local elections at the end of March, Halıcı said, drawing near, “The government is probably afraid that footage related to corruption and other issues will be published [on the Internet].” In past election season, footage of sex scandals involving candidates has been used to influence voters.

The fines stipulated by the bill range between TL 2,000 and TL 50,000. The bill also requires all Internet service providers to become members of an association to be established at a future date.

“This is a [legal] regulation that may well restrict … freedoms,” Günal Kurşun, president of the Human Rights Agenda Association (İHGD),” has told Today’s Zaman. According to Kurşun, who is also a law professor at Çukurova University, a bill that gives the minister of communications and the TİB chief the right to ban specific websites violates the Constitution, as the two are not judicial authorities.

The fact that Internet service providers are required by the bill, which has already passed a subcommittee of Parliament’s Planning and Budget Committee, to monitor — regardless of what kind of service they provide — Internet users and inform authorities also violates the Constitution, Kurşun argued, “because this also stands for a [kind of] profiling.”

As per the amendment, publications and video footage that violate privacy of individuals over the Internet will be stopped within four hours, while courts are expected to announce a verdict on such an issue within 48 hours. The TİB is bestowed the right, with the authorization of the minister of transport, maritime affairs and communications, to introduce a ban over a given web page, in case problems arise when it would be too late in terms of protection of privacy and personal rights.

The İHGD’s Kurşun is anxious that the amendment will serve to further restrict freedoms in this area. Noting that the courts have so far pronounced verdicts for the shutting down of nearly 4,000 websites, he said: “The verdicts the courts [in Turkey] pronounced so far are not, after all, all that libertarian.”

To eliminate the problem encountered when authorities look for an addressee when a certain publication is to be removed from a website or access to a website is to be blocked, an association of Internet access providers is to be established.  

Analysts are concerned, because, as is commonly known, once begun censorship has a tendency to grow. For Savaş Bozbel, dean of the faculty of law at the International Antalya University, the amendment comes to mean the imposition of censorship over the Internet in Turkey. Such an amendment would lead Turkey to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and not to the European Union, Bozbel commented to Today’s Zaman.

According to Bozbel, who believes the content of the amendment is fundamentally against EU regulations and international norms that are also binding for Turkey, with such a regulation about the Internet, a total filtering of content on the Internet may well be possible. As per the amendment, other than blocking access to certain content on a web page, access to a web page may be blocked via a domain name or IP address or similar ways.  

Noting that the term “similar ways” is an open-ended expression, Bozbel is concerned that if the amendment is passed in Parliament, Turkey may look like a country where freedoms are heavily restricted. “It seems possible that access [to a given website] or to certain content in the website may, by way of total filtering [of the Internet] as is the case in China, Russia and Iran, be blocked,” he said.

Ali Rıza Keleş, head of the Alternative Informatics Association, shares Bozbel’s concerns that Turkey may look like an authoritarian country after the adoption of the amendment. “It becomes so easy to block access [to a certain web page]. In one or two years, Turkey may look like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran in this area,” he told Today’s Zaman.

Keleş, who criticized the government for paying no attention to proposals submitted by nongovernmental organizations to the government regarding the amendment, is also concerned that the state will have a position of “big brother,” with the possibility of monitoring every Internet user, with such an amendment.

Noting that according to the current law in place, monitoring on the Internet is done only via IP addresses and at the time when people had access to a certain web page, Keleş said: “But thanks to the amendment, they will also be able to monitor the content of what we have access to [on the Internet]. In this way, people will be easily profiled.”

As per the amendment, access to websites that uses — based on elements such as race, religion, gender or local differences — obvious discriminative, insulting language towards some members of the society will be able to be blocked. Those who violate the law will have to pay a fine instead of serving time in prison.  

During the Gezi Park protests, which rocked the country at the beginning of summer last year, extensive use of social media by protesters to communicate with one another seems to have pushed the government to seek tougher rules on the Internet. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described Twitter, at the time, as a nuisance.