Turkey unveils legislation to tighten control over internet

Daniel Dombey

Turkey is pushing through new legislation that tightens government control over the internet – days after the country hosted the Internet Governance Forum, a high profile UN-backed gathering.

The measure is also part of the first legislative package since Recep Tayyip Erdogan, previously Turkey's prime minister, succeeded Abdullah Gul as the country's president last month and specifically reverses a compromise Gul had thrashed out on internet controls.

Under the new legislation, proposed by Turkey's ruling AK party and incorporated into an omnibus package that government legislators hoped to pass on Tuesday night, the head of Turkey's telecoms directorate will gain the power to block internet sites within four hours, ahead of a court decision.

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Once the regulator has taken such a step on the grounds of national security, crime prevention or public order, it has 24 hours to seek a court order and the court a further 48 hours to decide whether to uphold the move.

"This is intensely problematic because based on this broad terminology a public servant will make the judgment to block access to websites," said Yaman Akdeniz, a legal scholar who has fought the government on internet cases. "I find it incompatible with the constitution . . . This is a dubious power to give to a questionable public authority such as the telecoms directorate."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Murat Kaynak | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

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The telecoms directorate, which is headed by a former Turkish intelligence officer, implemented bans on access to Twitter and YouTube this year, although both were later overturned by the country's constitutional court. Erdogan has already signaled plans to pass its duties over to MIT, Turkey's intelligence agency.

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The Turkish government, which earlier this year had to contend with a stream of internet leaks alleging corruption, argues the legislation is necessary to protect privacy. "This provision is necessary for the protection of private life and also to act quickly against child porn, et cetera," said an official. "Experts worked on many other options, but this was the best formula to protect the rights of our citizens."

Such provisions were originally included in a controversial internet law passed this year, but, at the initiative of then-president Gul, were later revised, requiring the telecoms directorate to obtain court authorization first before blocking sites.

Zeynep Tufekci at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University argued that the practical impact of the new legislation could be small, since the government would in any case find it easy to secure court orders to block sites. But she underlined its symbolism, so soon after Mr Erdogan took office and after the Internet Governance Forum was held in Istanbul last week.

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"Doing this straight after the Internet Governance Forum is telling the world and telling Gul we are going to do things our way," she said. "It seems a pretty strong message that this is Erdogan's way."

The legislation would still have to be approved by Erdogan before it can take effect.