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Turkey Passes Measure To Tighten Control On Social Media

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So Turkey is no stranger to restrictions on the freedom of speech. Journalists, activists, political opponents regularly serve jail time for things they write or say publicly. Well, now the country's Parliament has passed a bill; it would force tech companies to comply with local rules for one of the last relatively free platforms in Turkey - social media. Durrie Bouscaren reports.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: It all started with a baby. In June, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed his eighth grandchild. But when the Erdogan family's official social media accounts posted about the occasion, some Turks took the opportunity to levy criticism at the president. Erdogan vowed to prosecute those responsible and have these kinds of posts removed and controlled.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Speaking non-English language).

BOUSCAREN: "Do you understand why we are against social media like YouTube, Twitter and Netflix?" He said. "This kind of media does not suit this nation."

GULIN CAVUS: People see these platforms to - make their voice.

BOUSCAREN: Gulin Cavus is the editor in chief of Teyit, a social media fact-checking organization based in Turkey. She says the legislation just passed by Turkey's Parliament may become a de facto type of censorship.

CAVUS: Turkey is a really polarized country, and many people don't trust news and mainstream media organizations. So people use social media, especially, like, Twitter or Facebook, to get news.

BOUSCAREN: She worries it may cut off one of the last platforms for free speech in Turkey. If people are afraid of being prosecuted, they may not post at all. According to a Freedom House report, at least 500 people have been detained since May, accused of spreading fake or manipulative information about COVID-19. Free speech advocates, however, say many posters were simply criticizing government policies or trying to warn the public.

CAVUS: With this bill, probably people just afraid of when they say something against government, they just think that they will punish.

BOUSCAREN: The bill itself require social media platforms to have a representative in Turkey and respond to requests for content removal within 48 hours. Companies could be fined, have their advertising banned or their bandwidth reduced, essentially blocking their use if they don't comply. Turkish tech consultant Ussal Sahbaz sees it as a way to give the Turkish government some teeth, to stand up to large American tech companies.

USSAL SAHBAZ: I don't think it has been pushed by the government to ban a certain thing on the social media. I think government is just trying to gain ground against the big tech companies. It will be able to bargain with them and to be able to regulate with them.

BOUSCAREN: Supporters of the bill in Turkey argue that these roles hold social media companies accountable for the content they host. A lot of countries have passed laws to try and stem disinformation or violent threats or explicit content. The difference is what Turkey may consider offensive in a country that already makes it a crime to insult its leaders.

For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "23.01.2018") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.