Alarm bells over ‘Big Brother’ Turkish internet curbs

New measures allow pages deemed insulting or as invading privacy to be blocked without the need for a judge

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 February, 2014, 8:44pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 February, 2014, 8:44pm

Turkey was under fire on Thursday over new internet curbs that critics say constitute a distressing slide towards authoritarianism in the aspiring EU member state.

Parliament passed the measures late on Wednesday, the latest controversial moves in Turkey as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to bring the judiciary and police to heel to contain a snowballing and deeply embarrassing corruption probe sullying the upper echelons of power.

In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said the restrictions, including the blocking of webpages without a court order, raised “serious concerns” and need “to be revised in line with European standards”.

Under the new measures, Turkey’s Telecommunications Communications Presidency (TIB) can demand that providers block pages deemed insulting or as invading privacy – and without the need for a judge.

The body will also be able to request users’ online communications and traffic information from hosting providers, which will have to retain up to two years’ worth of data.

Lawmaker Faruk Logoglu from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said the measures were “nothing but a way to intimidate the people, to tell them ‘Big Brother is watching you’.”

I would call it an Orwellian nightmare. Turkey has become a step closer to countries like Iran, Syria and China, rather than moving towards the European Union
Yaman Akdeniz, law professor at Bilgi University

Logoglu said it was a “way of suffocating and rendering forgotten” the corruption probe that Erdogan has blamed on allies of a friend-turned-foe Islamic preacher living in self-imposed exile in the United States.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has warned that the curbs could “significantly impact free expression, investigative journalism, the protection of journalists’ sources, political discourse and access to information over the internet”.

Reporters Without Borders said the aim was “to reinforce cyber-censorship, government control of the internet and surveillance”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called it a “slide into internet authoritarianism” in country that it says is the leading jailer of journalists worldwide.

Yaman Akdeniz, law professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul, said the curbs would have a “chilling effect” in a country where Facebook and Twitter are platforms for political discussion rather than just socialising.

“I would call it an Orwellian nightmare,” he said. “Turkey has become a step closer to countries like Iran, Syria and China, rather than moving towards the European Union.”

All eyes on Gul

The Islamic-rooted government rejects the criticism, with Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc saying there is “no such thing as internet censorship. We are freer compared to many other countries and have freedom of press.”

Erdogan, Turkey’s all-powerful leader for 11 years, is openly suspicious of the internet, branding Twitter a “menace” for helping organise mass nationwide protests in June in which six people died and thousands were injured.

But President Abdullah Gul, who on Tuesday met none other than Apple chief Tim Cook, in the past has portrayed himself as an internet fan, tweeting for example in 2011: “Anyone who wants it should be able to roam freely on the internet”.

Human rights think-tank Freedom House urged Gul to issue a veto, saying the curbs give “the government licence to censor the internet whatever it doesn’t like and whatever it doesn’t want the public to know.”

But such a veto is far from certain, however, since Gul is a close ally of Erdogan – openly at least – and their Justice and Development Party (AKP) is facing important local elections on March 30.

“President Gul... has avoided using his authority in the past even in the most controversial issues,” Ozgur Korkmaz said in an editorial in the Hurriyet newspaper. “An exception for the internet censorship law is highly unlikely.”

CHP lawmaker Emrehan Halici told AFP he hoped Gul would return the amendments to parliament, “but until now the head of state has in general approved all the mistaken laws adopted by the AKP”.

Gul has yet to comment on the measures.