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Turkey strongarms social media on charges of ‘digital fascism’

Turkey’s advertising ban for social media platforms with more than 1 million daily users that have failed to establish a local representative office in the country came into force on Tuesday.

As of Jan. 19, nobody will be allowed to advertise on Twitter, its live-streaming app Periscope and image-sharing app Pinterest, leading to a substantial loss of revenue for these platforms.

Their bandwidth will also be reduced by half in April and by 90 percent in May, leading ultimately to a total blocking of access.

On Monday, Facebook announced that it would appoint a local representative in Turkey, in compliance with the country’s draconian social media law that has been criticized as a powerful instrument of state censorship of online content.

Facebook said that it might withdraw its local representative if he or she faced political pressure.

Last month, YouTube decided to abide by the new law that gives Turkish authorities the opportunity to remove so-called “sensitive” content from social media platforms rather than blocking access.

YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have faced fines in previous months for not complying with the new law.

“Advertising on Twitter hasn’t been very popular among advertisers. However, especially for NGOs and political parties, advertising on Twitter was thought to be a meaningful device,” Sarphan Uzunoglu, a digital communications expert from Istanbul Bilgi University, told Arab News.

Uzunoglu thinks that rather than classical market actors, governmental and non-governmental actors will be affected by this new situation while campaigning.

The Turkish government considers foreign social media platforms bypassing local oversight an example of “digital fascism.”

The new social media law will expose users to the risk of arbitrary arrest and prosecution over their online posting as their private data can be handed over to Turkish authorities on request.

Right defenders have asked all international social media companies that established a local representative office in Turkey to tell their users how their right to freedom of expression will be guaranteed.

Compared to other platforms that complied with the new law, Twitter’s share in the advertising market is limited, Uzunoglu said.

“However, Twitter is the most political platform among them and it is intensely used by journalists who are under the government’s oppression on a regular basis. So Twitter, in the end, is a battlefield. I find their decision to resist for now so valuable,” he said.

In Turkey, where the mainstream media is almost completely owned by pro-government conglomerates, social media platforms have become a frequent source of information for citizens, who also share their views on political issues.

According to the latest Dimensions of Polarization in Turkey 2020 Survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Istanbul Bilgi University, online news portals (57 percent), as well as Facebook and Twitter (36 percent), have turned into the primary information sources for Turks.

“This law and its application with these fines and bans are problematic,” Kemal Kumkumoglu, a lawyer specialized in digital technologies, told Arab News.

“First of all, this law does not provide a democratic aim or proportionate measures. For example, the provision which allows removing user content could be considered an Orwellian tool since it offers government (a way) to create a digital environment free from discussions or criticisms about the government actors or institutions,” he said.

On the other hand, for Kumkumoglu, although it is a legitimate expectation on the government’s side to appoint local representatives for social media platforms for law enforcement and taxation purposes, the path that the government has been following endangers the fundamental rights of citizens.

“This commercial ban and the potential cut on bandwidth will affect the freedom of expression and freedom of trade of the large portion of the population who enjoy these rights mainly with these platforms,” he said.

Twitter released its Transparency Report in January, in which Turkey was ranked as the world leader in the categories of combined requests, court orders and other legal demands, accounts specified for closure, and accounts and tweets withheld.

Kumkumoglu considers the social media law and its gradual implementation on social media platforms a “double-edged sword.”

“It is true that the citizens should not be left alone concerning the digital problems they encounter. However, pushing citizens into social media platforms that are put under the constant pressure of huge fines is not an ideal solution. The rule of law requires addressing such issues with a systematic and democratic approach, which is unfortunately not the case in Turkey.”

On tweets withheld by Twitter, Turkey still tops the list with 12,135 tweets out of 28,542 tweets withheld in 2020. This means almost 42 percent of the tweets withheld globally by Twitter came from Turkey last year.

Source: Arab News

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