Turkey to fine Facebook in November for non-compliance with social media law

Facebook will face an initial fine of 10 million lira ($1.3 million) on Nov. 2 for refusing to comply with a strict new law regulating websites with more than 1 million monthly hits in Turkey.

An unnamed Turkish official told Bloomberg that while Facebook had not formally responded to Turkey’s legal requirement for social media companies to appoint a local representative in Turkey, the government would start imposing an initial fine of 10 million lira ($1.3 million) on the company in November. It is not clear how such a fine will be imposed on a company that has no legal presence in Turkey.

Digital rights lawyer Yaman Akdeniz told Ahval that while Facebook had not made a public statement about their decision not to comply with Turkey’s new law, that a representative from the company’s human rights team had communicated this to him on the telephone.

“They are telling everyone on the phone, and after they told me they spoke to A19, Amnesty, HRW and CPJ among others,” Akdeniz said.

Facebook’s decision may influence the way other big companies with lots of users in Turkey react to the legal changes. Akdeniz said Twitter would “very likely follow Facebook, but I’m not sure about Google yet.”

October 1 was the last day that companies affected by the legislation could appoint a local representative, who is also required to be a Turkish citizen. The fact that no big internet firms have announced their compliance with the law suggests that, like Facebook, they are reluctant to legally expose an employee to legal and financial pressure from the Turkish government.

 

If other social media companies follow Facebook’s lead, it will represent a significant setback for the Turkish government officials, who are used to being able to control domestic media. The government regularly uses legal threats to chill freedom of expression, with over 18,000 people facing legal action over social media posts in 2018, according to an Interior Ministry report.

However, the Turkish government hasn’t been able to force global internet platforms to comply with Turkish laws. In 2017, Turkey decided to block access to all language versions of Wikipedia, and asked the Wikimedia Foundation, the charity that supports but does not control the content on Wikipedia, to amend entries which it considered inaccurate or insulting to the Turkish government and members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s family.

It also asked the Wikimedia Foundation to open an office and appoint a legal representative in Turkey, despite the fact that Wikimedia is not a commercial company, and operates internationally through affiliate groups of Wikipedia editors who are funded by the foundation but remain independent from it.

Many other platforms have faced access bans of varying durations over the years.

The Wikimedia Foundation ended up taking its case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which ruled that Turkey had violated the right to free expression. Turkey quietly lifted the block on Wikipedia in January 2020.

The main difference between Wikipedia and sites like Facebook is that Wikipedia carries no advertising, which means that it did not suffer any loss of revenue from being blocked in Turkey. In contrast, Facebook and Twitter stand to lose millions of dollars under the new social media law, as Turkey can now ban Turkish companies from advertising on the websites of companies who refuse to comply.

Facebook may be calculating that while their non-compliance may come with financial costs, that the potential damage to the company’s reputation from complicity with the Turkish government’s attempts to control and censor the media outweighs the possible financial damage.

The social media giant has been heavily criticised for its role in allowing human rights abuses to take place in other countries. In Myanmar, authorities used Facebook to spread incitement to violence against the Rohingya minority, significantly contributing to ethnic cleansing.

If other big companies like Twitter and Google also refuse to comply with the law, Turkey will find itself in a position where the government is cutting off core internet services to millions of Turkish citizens. This also has a political cost to Turkey, and even loyal supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may question whether the government has got its priorities right if they find themselves unable to send an email.

Turkey is in the midst of a sustained drop in the average person’s standard of living. Cutting off services that are used by millions of Turkish people, including government supporters, may eventually backfire on the Turkish government if these companies stick to their position. We may be about to find out that in the digital age, companies like Facebook and Google are more powerful than the Turkish state.