Reporters Without Borders is very concerned about an Internet bill that is to be debated by the Turkish parliament in Ankara in the coming days. Registered by a ruling AKP member in mid-December as proposed amendments to Law 5651 on the Internet, it would allow website blocking without a court order and mass surveillance of Internet users.
Reporters Without Borders urges parliamentarians to reject this draconian bill and joins those who are calling for demonstrations against it throughout Turkey today.
“Law 5651 need overhauling to remove its repressive features and to guarantee respect for freedom of information but parliament is unfortunately moving in the opposite direction,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The bill it is about to consider aims solely to reinforce cyber-censorship, government control of the Internet and surveillance of the public.
“Its adoption would be fraught with consequences for the fundamental freedoms of Internet users and the Turkish digital economy. We urge parliamentarians to revise this bill completely in consultation with civil society and taking account of the European Court of Human Rights’ criticism of current legislation.
“This bill is all the more disturbing for seeming to be an integral component of a series of draconian statements and initiatives by the authorities in recent months. In the face of unparalleled protests starting last summer and now ensnared in corruption scandals of unprecedented scale, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government should realize that its salvation does not lie in more censorship.”
In a May 2011 report, United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue said the flow of information via the Internet should be restricted only “in few, exceptional, and limited circumstances prescribed by international human rights law.”
Calls for protests at 6 p.m. today under the watchwords of “Hands off my Internet” and “Stop censorship” (#sansürüDurdur) are circulating in the media and on social networks. Demonstrations are scheduled in at least nine cities – Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, Balikesir, Mersin, Antakya, Bursa and Eskisehir.
Extensive blocking without a court order
The High Council for Telecommunications (TIB) is already allowed to order the blocking of websites without a court order in cases of paedophile content, suicide advocacy and “other obscene” content.
But under the proposed law, it would also be able to block without a court order in cases of “violation of privacy,” content that is “discriminatory or insulting towards certain members of society” and to protect the family and children. The Ministry of Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communication would also be able to order blocking.
The lack of any need for a court order and the vagueness of the blocking criteria could lead to mass censorship, especially as many websites are already arbitrarily blocked in Turkey. Analysts say the provisions could be applied to criticism of religion or public figures, or could be used to block satirical sites such as Eksi Sözlük and Zaytung without giving Internet users any chance to defend their right to visit these sites.
The bill reduces the delay before execution of blocking decisions from 72 hours to 24 hours. “In emergency cases,” the head of the TIB would be able to move immediately and unilaterally to block websites within four hours. Anyone who thinks content is “violating their privacy” would also be able to contact Internet Service Providers (ISPs) directly to get it blocked within four hours.
Appealing against blocking would only be possible after the event. Blocking ordered by prosecutors would not need subsequent confirmation by a judge and could be extended by the prosecutors themselves.
Filtering methods would be extended. It would be possible to block content by URL and IP address, and not just by domain name. Keyword filtering is also mentioned. Circumventing censorship by use of proxies or DNS resetting would be impossible.
Bringing ISPs into line
The bill would bring the entire Turkish Internet under the TIB’s direct authority. Enshrined as the Internet’s supreme entity, the TIB would enjoy complete impunity. No judicial investigation could be initiated against a TIB employee without the TIB president’s permission. No decision by the TIB president could be questioned without the communication ministry’s permission.
Internet access providers would be brought under a new body that would centralize blocking requests and content removal. This Union of Access Providers would probably function as an additional government tool for controlling ISPs and other technical intermediaries, which would face closure if they did not become members and install the required surveillance devices.
The penalties for failing to comply with censorship orders would also increase. Hosting companies that did not immediately execute a content withdrawal order could be fined 10,000 to 100,000 Turkish pounds (3,300 to 33,000 Euros). The possibility of prison sentences for access providers that failed to block sites was raised during debate in parliamentary commission.
This provision would directly violate Special Rapporteur La Rue’s position that: “Holding intermediaries liable for the content disseminated or created by their users severely undermines the enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, because it leads to self-protective and over-broad private censorship, often without transparency and the due process of the law.”
Data retention danger
The bill would require ISPs to keep users’ Internet connection records for between one and two years and to surrender them to the relevant authorities on request. Concern is all the greater because the bill does not specify what data must be handed over or what use would be made of it. Experts say it would include the history of visited websites and social networks, searches, IP addresses and even email subject lines.
Posted content would also be subject to constant keyword surveillance. In so doing, the TIB would not limit itself to looking for crimes but would also act to “protect the family and children.” It is not yet known how this would affect websites.
Turkey has for years been classified by Reporters Without Borders as a country “under surveillance” because of its cyber-censorship policies. It is ranked 154th out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.