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Turkey passes new law extending sweeping powers over social media

Istanbul — Turkey's parliament passed controversial new legislation Wednesday requiring platforms like Twitter and Facebook to comply with government requests to remove content and store data in the country. Critics say that the move is an attempt to control social media and silence opposition.

Under the new law, social media companies with over one million daily users will have to open offices in Turkey and comply with government or individual demands to block and remove posts. If they refuse, they could be fined, have their advertisements blocked, or see their bandwidth slashed by up to 90%, essentially making them inaccessible. The law also requires user data to be stored in Turkey.

The bill was supported by Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party and its nationalist ally. The popularity of social media has increased in recent years for those who want to voice dissent and access independent news. The majority of mainstream media outlets in Turkey are owned by businesses that support the government and do not allow opposition views on air.

Social media is, however, also heavily policed in Turkey. According to Twitter's transparency report, Turkey had the highest number of requests for content removal of any country, with more than 6,000 in the first half of 2019.

"News portals and social media platforms will also be asked to delete and remove news articles, content as well as accounts from their systems," Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor with Istanbul's Bilgi University, told CBS News, adding that the new law comes on top of other restrictions. "This is a draconian new measure which did not exist previously. This new measure will be used to cleanse the government's past allegations of corruption as well as irregularities. It will be the most important tool to curb political speech on the internet," he said.

The bill came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to bring tougher control on social media in July in response to posts insulting his daughter and newborn grandchild on Twitter.

"We cannot accept 83 million Turkish citizens being bound hand and foot in the face of social media terror while the Americans, Europeans and Chinese have these opportunity [mechanisms]," Erdogan said, alleging that similar laws were in place in other parts of the world.

The Turkish president's dislike for social media is not new. Erdogan called it "the worst menace to society"  in 2013 after nationwide popular protests organised online swept across the country.

Social media users are often threatened with legal action in Turkey. Since 2014, more than 100,000 people have been investigated and 30,000 have had to appear in front of a court for insulting the Turkish president, according to the human right lawyer Kerem Kinik. The majority of those cases, he says, were involving posts on social media.        

Activists who often use social media platforms to organize protested the new law. Melek Onder from the group We Will Prevent Female Homicides said social media enables women who are subjected to violence to mobilize support and put pressure on authorities to take action.

"It is now impossible to silence women and it is very difficult to implement this law in the 21st century where information and technology is very accessible. But even if they try, women and the whole society would fight back and find alternative ways", Onder told CBS News. 

The deputy of chairman of Turkey's ruling AKP party, Mahir Unal, denied that the law aims "to shut social media platforms or introduce a ban." He said the new legislation would "protect the rights of individuals and stop spread of disinformation in social media," according to public broadcaster TRT Haber.

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