Erdoğan's efforts to control social media could severely hurt Turkish economy

The Turkish government’s prospect of tighter social media controls, which includes banning online companies who do not meet Ankara's requirements, would mean unemployment for thousands of people in sector, social media officials say.

On July 1, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to restrict activities of social media platforms in Turkey, fulfilling a long-standing mission of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), after the head of state said his family was insulted online.

However, some Turkey analysts say the motive behind Erdoğan's recent move was thousands of young Turks blasting the Turkish president with real-time comments during a live stream event and launching #OyMoyYok (“Not getting my vote” in Turkish) hashtag campaign on Twitter.

Netflix was banned at the Turkish parliament days after Erdoğan’s announcement. Turkish authorities said they have applied various restrictions on access to movie and TV websites since 2019, and the latest curbs are not connected with recent debates.

The closure of social media giants will directly affect graphic designers, content editors, video producers and editors, as well as various freelancers, social media strategy expert Elmas Tozlu told Ahval.

"That is, their closure is not even a matter of discussion. Because we are talking about an issue that will affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people," Tozlu said.

Meanwhile, in addition to the loss of employment, such a ban will harm a wide range of businesses – from large corporations to small scale enterprises – that use social media for marketing, she said.

The bill proposed by the AKP stipulates that social media platforms must appoint a legal representative in Turkey to whom courts can request to remove content or provide the identities of the users.

Erdoğan aims to effectively end anonymity on social media platforms, with the sites expected to implement systems to confirm the IDs of their users. As per the bill, these platforms must also keep their stored Turkish user data in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the draft law will incur sizable fines if they fail to comply with requests by the Turkish government. The bill seeks to impose fines of up to €50 million ($56.4 million) on social media companies that fail to swiftly remove hate speech and other illegal content from their platforms.

The government aims to obscure the freedom of obtaining information and freedom of expression in Turkey, Veysel Ok, co-director of the Media and Law Studies Association, told Ahval.

"Its judicial meaning is the establishment of an authoritarian regime," Ok said.

Ok said Erdoğan had implied that Turkey lacks adequate laws to regulate the social media.

"But this is not true," he said.

"Current legal system already hinders social media. Both anti-terror laws and laws on online crimes give extensive authority to judiciary and government."

AKP's earlier efforts to control the internet prompted strong objections because it concerns a majority of the Turkish society, digital marketing adviser Okan Köroğlu told Ahval.

"It is a topic that is in effect bored through the veins of our lives," Köroğlu said.

In 2011, thousands of citizens in various cities took to the streets in protest of proposed internet filters. The protest in Istanbul's Taksim Square alone had more than 50,000 people – largely organised through social networks – hoisting signs that read “Let Me Surf” and “Don’t Touch My Internet!”

Turkey is no stranger to online censorship. The country has banned access to 408,494 websites by the end of last year, including 61,049 in 2019 alone, according to the "Bans on the Web 2019" report published by the Freedom of Expression Association (İFÖD).

Turkish authorities meanwhile have banned access to 7,000 Twitter accounts, 40,000 individual tweets, 10,000 YouTube videos and 6,200 Facebook posts by the end of 2019.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.