Social media curbs hidden in Turkey’s coronavirus omnibus bill

A 63-article omnibus bill the Turkish vice president is set to submit to parliament this week has been presented to the public as a ban on employers laying off staff for the next three months while the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

But hidden among the bill’s many articles are several restrictive measures that have rung alarm bells for the opposition, after it failed to block another bill that will release some 90,000 of Turkey’s 300,000 prison inmates to protect them from the coronavirus, but will leave thousands who are viewed as political prisoners behind bars.

The new omnibus bill includes amendments on banking, tax and labour law designed to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19, while also granting university students a holiday and interest reduction for their loan repayments.

Buried among these measures is an amendment that will restrict and bring under state control communications on social media networks, including global giants like Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and Telegram.

Opposition parties have described these measures as laying the groundwork for full-blown dictatorship. They say the traditional media landscape in Turkey is already severely restricted, and that a move that brings social media to heel is an attempt to do away with the last place left for critical voices.

The amendments in the omnibus bill state that social network providers with more than 1 million users in Turkey must appoint official representatives in the country. These representatives will be charged with enacting any legal rulings or requirements set out by the government, including blocking pages or deleting content, within 72 hours.

Those which do not appoint representatives will have their internet traffic bandwidth restricted, first by 59 percent, and then if they do not comply within 30 days, by 95 percent. This would amount to a de facto ban on social media networks that do not toe the line.

At the same time, the bill seeks to broaden the powers held by the state’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK), which will give the institution the power to raid networks’ representatives’ offices and investigate with support from police and other security services. The BTK will have on file social media representatives’ personal details and work and home addresses.

The social networks will also be bound to hold users’ personal information and communications data in Turkey and in a manner that the authorities have direct access to, with regular reports on social media use sent to the BTK.

Opposition parties say that this is a blatant bid by the government to identify anonymous dissidents on social media and profile people who share anti-government content. They say that, as well as blocking such content, the BTK could in future be used to press legal charges against users who post it and have them arrested.

“What they’re trying to do is exactly the same as in one-party states like Iran, North Korea and China that have seized control of social media,” said Erdoğan Toprak, a deputy for the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party.

“What this means is the end of messaging platforms like WhatsApp,” he said. “Giving the BTK the right to raid companies and the authority to call in police support in supervising, stipulating 1-million lira ($150,000) fines are measures that befit a repressive, anti-democratic dictatorial regime.”

The measure fits in with the government’s other most hotly debated bill of the moment on the enforcement of sentences, Toprak said.

That bill, which passed early on Tuesday, loosens sentencing law to reduce time served in prison and allows inmates to serve a longer stretch of their sentences under house arrest or to receive early parole.

It will see an estimated 90,000 inmates released from crowded prisons – seen as potential hotbeds for the spreading virus – but will exclude tens of thousands of people imprisoned on terrorism charges. Since Turkey’s definition of terrorism is loose enough to include people jailed for social media posts, the two bills this month may provide a glimpse of the future of Turkey’s penal system, said Toprak.

“When this bill is passed, the government evidently aims to fill the cells that have been emptied in prison … with social media and WhatsApp users,” Toprak said. “This omnibus bill has been packaged as a law to prohibit lay-offs and protect victims (of the coronavirus). But the real aim behind it is to wipe out freedoms in many areas that bear no relation to the pandemic.”