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    Türkiye: Big Tech Should Protect Online Expression, Resist Censorship


    (Istanbul) – Social media companies should resist intensifying efforts by Turkish authorities to control their platforms through demands that they block content critical of the government ahead of important municipal elections on March 31, 2024, Human Rights Watch, ARTICLE 19, and 20 other human rights and journalists’ groups said in a statement released today.

    Social media companies have restricted access to critical content in response to a January 2024 court order, demonstrating a greater willingness to bend to government pressure, rather than challenge censorship requests where they violate international human rights law. This approach undermines the platforms’ responsibility to respect human rights under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which include resisting pressure to restrict freedom of expression.

    Social media platforms should take a firm, united stance against formal and informal pressure targeting expression protected under international human rights law, and adopt heightened transparency in the face of increasing online censorship.

    The following is the groups’ statement:

    Ahead of Türkiye’s municipal elections on March 31, 2024, ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch, and 20 other rights groups and journalists’ organisations jointly call on social media platforms to uphold the free expression rights of their users and resist state censorship. They should also fully disclose all government requests to restrict accounts or content and be transparent about informal government pressure to restrict content on their platforms.

    The rights groups and journalists’ organisations also call on the Turkish government to cease pressuring online platforms to block content.

    As important country-wide local elections loom, the Turkish authorities are once again intensifying efforts to control social media platforms through use of the restrictive internet law, demanding the blocking of content critical of the government. Social media platforms should take a firm, united stance against formal and informal pressure targeting expression protected under international human rights law, and adopt heightened transparency in the face of increasing online censorship.

    Escalating Pressure and Inadequate Platform Response

    A recent striking instance of the Turkish authorities’ readiness to escalate censorship – along with an inadequate response from platforms – concerned a January decision of the Ankara 9th Criminal Peace Court.

    On January 10, the X (formerly Twitter) Government Affairs account published a January 6 order from the Ankara court with a list of social media content to be blocked on several platforms. The court order targeted 210 items including profiles and content on X, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok that relate to Muhammet Yakut, a businessman from Türkiye accused of criminal activities, who has made allegations on social media of government corruption and organised criminal activity in Türkiye. While the court deemed the content a threat to “national security and protection of public order” under Article 8(a) of the Internet Law, the decision violated international freedom of expression standards and the platforms should not have blocked the content.

    X also stated that the Turkish government had told the company that it was the only platform not fully complying with the court order. X had subsequently “taken action” on 12 accounts and 15 tweets among those identified in the court order. It did so despite acknowledging that the content should be protected under freedom of expression and that the company would challenge the order in court, indicating in its statement that these steps were necessary to prevent its entire platform from being blocked in Türkiye. While none of the accounts or tweets listed in the order is accessible from within Türkiye, many remain accessible from other countries.

    A week after X’s announcement, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, published a case study andsubmitted a report to the Lumens database (a database run by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University) referring to the same court order in Meta’s Transparency Center. Noting that the restricted content did not violate its policies, Meta announced the blocking of 65 posts and 14 accounts for users in Türkiye based on the Turkish court order and indicated that its refusal to comply might have triggered sanctions including administrative fines, advertising bans for up to 6 months, and throttling of Meta’s entire services in Türkiye.

    Although YouTube and TikTok have not commented publicly on the court order, research indicates that both platforms seem to have restricted access to the content specified in the court order. This includes several URLs on both the YouTube and TikTok platforms. On TikTok, the listed items are either completely inaccessible from multiple countries or only restricted in Türkiye. On YouTube, all listed URLs are inaccessible inside Türkiye and from multiple countries.

    While some content restrictions were clearly labelled, in many instances platforms failed to indicate that the content was unavailable due to a court order. When attempting to access within Türkiye, the content was often labelled unavailable “because of a technical error” or showed messages of “video currently unavailable,” yet the same content remained accessible elsewhere. Similarly, entire accounts appeared as having posted “no content” when viewed from Türkiye, but displayed several posted videos when viewed from outside the country. This lack of transparency means that people navigating platforms from within Türkiye may never know that the content is purposefully restricted at the request of Turkish authorities and that the content may be accessible with the use of circumvention technologies.

    In February 2024, ARTICLE 19 wrote to Google, YouTube’s parent company, and TikTok inquiring, among other topics, how they responded to the court order. TikTok shared their general commitment to human rights and their routine practice of handling government requests for content removal in Turkey, without addressing the specific questions raised about the January content removals. Google, on the other hand, did not respond.

    Misguided Compliance Driven by Fear

    It appears that the October 2022 legal amendments to Türkiye’s internet law have resulted in social media companies’ greater willingness to bend to government pressure, rather than use legal means to challenge censorship requests where they violate international human rights law. X and Meta’s admission that they have blocked content demonstrates this fear-driven response to the Turkish authorities’ escalating censorship demands. X cited explicit concerns about potential sanctions, such as service throttling. Meta made general reference to possible sanctions in their case study.

    This approach undermines the platforms’ responsibility to respect human rights under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which include resisting pressure to restrict freedom of expression.

    While the legislation allows for bandwidth throttling of up to 90 percent for noncompliance with even one takedown order, experience shows that, independent of the platforms’ actions and the provisions for throttling stipulated in the law, the Turkish authorities have on occasion precipitously blocked all access to certain platforms with little justification. An example of this came after the February 6, 2023, earthquakes, when the authorities resorted to a short period of throttling to block content.

    However, evidence suggests extensive throttling over long periods before the elections is unlikely given the government and its supporters’ reliance on the platforms. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) spent considerable amounts of money on political advertisements in the run-up to the May 2023 national elections, according to Meta’s Ad Library. In the same period, Meta also reported removing an extensive network of inauthentic accounts spreading commentary supportive of the AKP, including through manipulated content, which had about 1.3 million followers and spent close to $700,000 on advertisements to circulate its content.

    Navigating Legal Pressures with Coordinated Response and Heightened Transparency

    As four major platforms decided to appoint local representatives in compliance with the 2020 amendments, civil society organisations warned YouTube, Meta, X, and TikTok against complying with laws that violate human rights standards. While all four companies reaffirmed their commitment to freedom of expression, they provided very little explanation as to how they intended to navigate the new legal environment. At the time Meta stated that there was a potential to withdraw the local representative if faced with increasing political pressure.

    While the government’s censorship has undoubtedly been increasing in recent years, and particularly intensified since the legal amendments to the country’s internet regulations in 2020 and 2022, the Turkish government has to date relied on a lack of transparency and coordination among platforms to isolate and pressure them individually into compliance. Shortly before Türkiye’s 2023 national elections, the Turkish authorities subjected platforms to threats of throttling for failure to comply with content removal demands. On two separate occasions, X has publicly indicated that Turkish authorities claimed it was the only platform failing to comply with a removal request and that this informed its decision to action the content.

    This pressure is likely to continue as local elections draw closer. It is essential that platforms resist being subjected to individualized pressure by adopting a coordinated response and heightened transparency measures and challenging removal demands in court. Continued compliance with these orders may encourage the Turkish authorities to make further similarly arbitrary or excessive requests to remove content that falls within the boundaries of protected expression, ultimately implicating these companies in state censorship, said the rights group.

    It is also crucial that platforms create contingency plans providing some means of access to their platforms in case shutdowns do occur at key moments during the upcoming elections, and to maintain access to content throughcircumvention technologies.

    Recommendations for Social Media Platforms and the Turkish Government

    As social media platforms operating in Türkiye are faced with increasing government pressure, ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch, and the 20 other rights groups and journalists’ organisations urge them to take the following steps, in consultation with civil society organisations and impacted communities:

    • Resist complying with blocking orders that restrict access to protected expression, including by challenging them in court and limiting the scope and duration of implementation. Assess blocking orders against international freedom of expression standards, considering in particular that political speech enjoys the highest level of protection.
    • Conduct additional human rights due diligence ahead of Türkiye’s March 2024 municipal elections to evaluate and mitigate the risk of becoming complicit in censorship and the freedom of expression implications of the potential sanctions by the government both on election day and the period leading up the election. This should include establishing a contingency plan to maintain platform access throughout the election period in the event of shutdowns or throttling.
    • Be transparent about government requests for censorship. This includes notifying users that content is not available at the URL where the content was hosted, the reason for its blocking (e.g., a government order) and publishing the order (including through the Lumens database) and case studies, when relevant. Publicising these actions expeditiously is key to holding governments accountable and mitigating isolated, informal pressure.
    • Engage with other companies to share information about formal and informal government pressure and commit to taking a united stance against particularly excessive censorship demands, particularly during election periods.
    • Engage with Turkish civil society for a better understanding of the implications of company policy and practices, the relevance of content or accounts that are subject to blocking orders, as well as the actual threat and implications of sanctions.

    The Turkish government is the primary duty bearer to ensure the right to freedom of expression and free and fair elections. To comply with these obligations, it should:

     

    • Adhere to international freedom of expression and human rights standards and repeal provisions of Türkiye’s internet legislation that do not comply with international human rights law.
    • Refrain from using legal and extra-legal means to exert pressure on social media platforms to censor online content in violation of the human rights obligations, particularly content involving political discourse.
    • Increase transparency in dealings with social media platforms, including public disclosure of all content removal requests.
    • Ensure that any actions taken against online platforms strictly comply with the principles of legality, legitimacy, necessity, and proportionality.
    • Refrain from throttling or shutting down the platforms at any time, whether before, during or after the elections.
       

    Signatories:

    1. ARTICLE 19
    2. Human Rights Watch
    3. Access Now
    4. Committee to Protect Journalists
    5. Danish PEN
    6. Digital Action
    7. English PEN
    8. European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
    9. European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
    10. Freedom House
    11. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
    12. International Press Institute (IPI)
    13. Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA)
    14. OBC Transeuropa
    15. PEN America
    16. PEN Canada
    17. PEN International
    18. PEN Norway
    19. P24 Platform for Independent Journalism
    20. SMEX
    21. South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)
    22. Swedish PEN





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