Turkey pressures social media with ad bans, Twitter in jeopardy

Turkey on Tuesday hit Twitter, Pinterest and Periscope with advertising bans after they refused to follow Facebook and appoint a local representative to take down contentious posts under a controversial new law described by critics as aimed to censure free expression.

Freedom of speech defenders view the new regulations as part of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempt to control social media and clamp down on dissent.

Continued failure to comply could jeopardise Twitter’s future in Turkey, which the platform lists as one of the top three countries — along with China and Russia — requesting the removal of posts.

New rules that went into force in October require networks with more than one million unique daily users to appoint an envoy to handle court orders to remove offending content within 48 hours.

Turkey’s deputy infrastructure minister Omer Fatih Sayan tweeted that companies still advertising on the three non-compliant platforms will be fined.

Ankara is “determined to do whatever is necessary to protect our people’s data, privacy and rights,” said Sayan.

“We will never allow digital fascism and rule-breaking to dominate in Turkey,” he said.

If the networks continue to ignore the law, Turkey will cut their bandwith by 50 percent in April and then 90 percent by May, thus rendering them effectively inaccessible.

Facebook said Monday it will appoint a local representative but recognised “how important it is for our platform to be a place where users can exercise their freedom of expression.”

Facebook joins YouTube, TikTok and Dailymotion in compliance, drawing anger from activists. Facebook’s Russian equivalent VK opened a local office in November.

Twitter intends to shut down its live streaming app Periscope in March.

— Tools of censorship —

Milena Buyum, Amnesty International’s Turkey campaigner, said on Monday that “Facebook’s decision leaves them — and Google, Youtube and others — in serious danger of becoming an instrument of state censorship.”

Sarah Clarke, who heads the Article 19 media freedom group’s Europe and Central Asia programme, called on the companies “not to contribute to Turkey’s censorship of online content.”

She also warned of the risk of exposing users to “arbitrary arrest and prosecution by handing over their private data to Turkish authorities”.

Research shows that as Erdoğan’s grip on mainstream media tightened, especially since he survived a failed military coup in 2016, younger people have sought information online, especially on social media.

Erdoğan last week warned that the “cyber world… has become a threat to humanity”, promising to create a “cyber homeland” as part of Turkey’s defence.

“Those who control data can establish their digital dictatorships by disregarding democracy, the law, rights and freedoms,” Erdoğan said.

According to the Freedom of Expression Association in Turkey, more than 450,000 domains and over 42,000 tweets have been blocked since October.

Despite having one of the largest Twitter followings for a politician, Erdoğan is not a social media fan, having once compared them to a “murderer’s knife”.

His aversion dates back to anti-government protests in 2013, when social media was frequently used to mobilise people.

But the new legislation gathered momentum after users insulted Erdoğan’s daughter Esra and her husband, Berat Albayrak, who was then an unpopular finance minister, after the birth of their fourth child.

Turkey is no stranger to blocking access to websites.

Between 2017 and 2020, Wikipedia was blocked, while YouTube suffered a similar fate between 2008 and 2010, and repeatedly over shorter periods in the last decade.  

(This article was published by the Arab Weekly and is reproduced by permission.)