Turkey’s government recently passed a new law aimed at curbing disinformation that citizens have dubbed the “censorship law,” according to reports. The new law was met with condemnation from both inside the country and abroad.
Troublingly, the vaguely-worded law, passed by parliament on October 13, prescribes three years’ imprisonment for anyone who publishes “false information” with the intent to “instigate fear or panic” or “endanger the country’s security, public order and general health of society.”
This latest law is one of many attempts by the country to restrict its citizens’ internet usage. Dubbed an “enemy of the internet” by Reporters Without Borders several times, Turkey’s government censors thousands of websites and frequently shows up on social media companies’ transparency reports for demanding content removals. The country is also among the world’s top jailers of journalists.
In 2020, at a time when the internet was more vital than ever for citizens the world over, Turkey passed a copycat law reminiscent of Germany’s NetzDG that required large social media companies to appoint a local representative and take down offending content within 48 hours. The law also introduced new powers for courts to order internet providers to throttle social media platforms’ bandwidth by up to 90%, which would effectively block access to those sites in the country.
Now, the disinformation law—which comes just eight months before Turkey’s next major elections—would require companies to remove disinformation within a four-hour time limit. A platform’s obligation to remove content could be triggered by a court order, or Turkey’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority (ICTA). Companies that fail to remove content within the timeframe could face throttling, as with the 2020 law. It also requires companies to report certain information to the ICTA at the agency’s request, including information about the algorithms related to topical hashtags, promoted and demoted content, advertisement policies, and transparency policies.
Companies also face hefty fines if they algorithmically amplify disinformation, and this would require them to make certain content less accessible, for instance through demotion. It also requires companies to hand over information about certain crimes—including child sexual abuse imagery (CSAM), disinformation, and state secrets—as soon as possible or face throttling.
A new provision, which criminalizes the dissemination of false or misleading information is even more concerning. The imprisonment of people for sharing content, which could also affect journalists, activists, and platform operators offering journalistic information, is unacceptable. By adopting the most drastic instead of the least restrictive measure to curb disinformation, the new bill clearly falls short of international human rights standards and will inevitably lead to far-reaching censorship.
It’s not all bad news. Packaged within these dangerous elements are measures not all dissimilar to those included in the EU’s new online platform legislation, the Digital Services Act (DSA); for instance, social network providers will now be obliged to provide clear, understandable, and easily accessible information about which parameters are used to recommend content to the users on their website, and must provide users with an option to limit the use of their personal information, among other things. Nevertheless, this isn’t a case where users should accept the good with the bad: The other provisions simply pose too big a risk to freedom of expression.