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Turkey Cites National Security as it Cranks Up Internet Controls

Demotix image ID: 3883719. Protest Against Internet Censorship. Taken 8 February 2014 by Görkem Keser in Turkey, Istanbul.

Demotix image ID: 3883719. Protest Against Internet Censorship. Taken 8 February 2014 by Görkem Keser in Istanbul, Turkey. The sign says: ‘If what we're living through in this country is normal, we are all crazy.’

The Turkish government may soon pass new legislation that will leave citizens broadly vulnerable to human rights abuses and extensive police controls. Many suspect the laws are intended to prevent a repeat of the Gezi protests that rocked the country in late 2013.

More censorship ahead?

One bill currently before Parliament would allow authorities to censor websites without court approval, granting enormous powers over the Internet to the office of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the Telecommunication Authorities (TİB). Under the law, TİB could order website owners to remove content that deemed threatening to national security by relevant government agencies (but not the courts). TİB also could order content removal to protect someone's safety and/or privacy, prevent crime or protect publich health. If website owners refuse to comply with an order, TİB could simply block sites that refused to comply with takedown orders and then pursue a judge's opinion retroactively.

This is poor practice by international human rights standards — but it is also uniquely troublesome in the Turkish context, where the courts remain the one branch of the political apparatus over which AKP has failed to gain full control. By allowing the government to circumvent the judiciary in the censorship process, the law increases the government's capacity to respond to protests or political scandals in real time.

In a recent interview with Bianet, an Istanbul-based independent communication network, Kerem Altıparmak of Ankara University summarized the censorship bill as follows:

From now on, TIB will be able to block anything with its unlimited judgment powers. There are hundreds of crimes defined in the book. The law doesn’t stop here — it also added the protection of public order. And there is no authority to inspect this.

For instance, think about the most trivial crime. If TIB wants, it can block content because of that. Since it includes public order, all organizations and gatherings will be considered within this.

TİB would thus have the power to order any website to remove any content they think jeopardises national security. If content owners resist, they can block the whole website and ask them to pay a fine of between 3,000 and 10,000 Turkish Lira (1,200-4,000 USD). If content owners cannot pay, they face jail.

Rules about content removal affect social media giants Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as well as local media outlets and blogs. If these networks disagree with a TİB’ request, they may risk total censorship in Turkey.

Twitter’s transparency reports show a massive increase in removal requests made by the Turkish government and courts last year in comparison to 2013. Turkish international relations scholar Efe Kerem Sözeri believes that the government is holding Twitter’s policy team over a barrel, with Ankara having already briefly banned the service for non-mobile users in March 2014. On that occasion, it was a constitutional court order that saved Twitter in Turkey.

The New Security Bill: More Power to the Powerful

The security bill proposed by AKP leaders looks scarier still, offering unprecedented powers to police and governors. The bill would authorize law enforcement to conduct telephone wiretapping for up to 48 hours without a warrant, authorizes police to arrest and detain anyone without a warrant up to 48 hours and stop and searches legal wherever police can find “reasonable doubt” of innocence.

One of the e-flyers made by Democrat Lawyers for Freedom to inform the public about the surveillance bill. "When the proposal passes into law; Joining a meeting or a protest will become a catalogue crime and anyone can be arrested and send to prison for that reason." Taken from the group's Facebook page.

An e-flyer made by Democrat Lawyers for Freedom to inform the public about the surveillance bill. “When the proposal becomes law, joining a meeting or a protest will become a catalogue crime and anyone can be arrested and send to prison for that reason.” Taken from the group's Facebook page.

The bill also gives power to governors to intervene in police investigations. According to Human Rights Watch’s summary of the bill:

The draft law proposes giving the highest administrative officer of a province, the governor, authority to assume powers that rightly belong to the prosecutorial authorities. The draft bill states that: “Where necessary and where there is a need for urgent measures, a governor can give direct orders to the police chief or public officials to shed light on a crime and to find the perpetrators of the crime.” The provision makes it obligatory for all public officials to comply with such orders.

This is significant given that Erdoğan, as president, has substantial influence over governor appointments put forward by the government. This enables both the government and president to interfere with police investigations by issuing dictates from the top.

One of the e-flyers made by Democrat Lawyers for Freedom to inform the public about the surveillance bill. 'When the proposal passes into law, police can stop and frisk anyone, search their possessions and car without a warrant from a court.' Taken from the group's Facebook page. 

“When the proposal becomes law, police can stop and frisk anyone, search their possessions and car without a warrant from a court.” Taken from the Democrat Lawyers for Freedom Facebook page. 

So far, civil society and opposition parties in parliament — where AKP has a majority — have rejected the bill, but the party of power has shown no signs of weakening its resolve. In the most recent example of how broadly defined the concept of national security is in Turkey, the government suspended a strike planned by metal workers for a period of 60 days on January 30, citing risks for “national security” without offering any further explanation.

Lawmakers will likely vote on the security bill next week. 

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