Turkish lawmakers passed legislation on Wednesday that would give the government sweeping new powers to regulate social media content, raising concerns that one of the few remaining spaces for free public debate in the country could fall under greater government control.
The bill orders social media platforms with over one million daily users — such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — to open offices in Turkey and imposes stiff penalties if the companies refuse, including slowing the bandwidth of the sites and making them largely inaccessible.
The companies would be responsible for responding to the demands of the government and individuals to block or remove content hosted on their platforms that is deemed offensive. They would have 48 hours to comply and could be fined more than $700,000 if they fail to respond.
The new law, which is expected to go into effect Oct. 1, also requires the social media companies to store user data inside Turkey, raising privacy concerns.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his governing A.K.P. party were behind the legislation, arguing that it was needed to protect citizens from cybercrime and slander. Critics, however, say it is part of a broader effort to control the flow of information in the country and stifle dissent.
“The new law will enable the government to control social media, to get content removed at will and to arbitrarily target individual users,” Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released hours before the overnight vote. “Social media is a lifeline for many people who use it to access news, so this law signals a new dark era of online censorship.”
The attempts to gain control over social media in Turkey highlight the paradox the platforms present in the digital age.
They have been used to spread disinformation in Western democracies, including by hostile foreign powers bent on sowing chaos and influencing elections. Efforts by social media platforms to police the content they host have repeatedly fallen short, and governments have yet to devise successful strategies to regulate content without unwittingly infringing on free speech.
But they have also proved to be an increasingly essential tool for debate and dialogue in repressive and autocratic nations, one of the last arenas where opposition figures can connect with the public, and citizens can attempt to hold politicians to account.
More than 90 percent of Turkey’s conventional media is now controlled by conglomerates close to the government. Hundreds of reporters have been jailed or fled the country out of fear and Mr. Erdogan has made himself so omnipresent on TV and radio that his voice can drown out all others. The internet is now, for many, the last open public forum.
In passing the bill, supporters acknowledged that it would allow the government to exert more authority in the digital realm.
“Today, while all the conventional media is acting within a certain discipline and order, we will be regulating social media who is acting entirely on its own,” Cahit Ozkan, deputy head of the A.K.P., said on Tuesday in televised remarks.
Six years ago, when he was embroiled in a corruption scandal widely reported on social media, he vowed to restrict access to the sites.
“We will not allow this nation to be devoured by YouTube, Facebook or whatever,” Mr. Erdogan said at the time. “We will take necessary steps in the firmest way.”
In 2016, months before an attempted coup, Turkey moved even more aggressively to censor content on the internet, as the number of people prosecuted for insulting Mr. Erdogan in posts on social media skyrocketed. At the same time, internet trolls loyal to the government used social media platforms to attack critics and journalists.
In 2017, the country shocked many international observers when it banned Wikipedia, a restriction that was lifted only this past January.
Last summer, Turkey gave its broadcast watchdog sweeping control over streaming services, including entertainment sites like Netflix. One of the effects of the legislation was to force online news outlets to apply for a license to operate in Turkey.
The issue took a personal turn more recently, when Mr. Erdogan’s newborn grandson — the fourth child of his daughter, Esra Albayrak, and Berat Albayrak, who is also the finance minister — was insulted on various social media platforms.
“Those spaces where lies, defamation, attack to personal rights, character assassinations are running wild, should be put in order,” Mr. Erdogan told party officials in a televised speech on July 1.
“We want such social media spaces to be entirely removed, to be controlled,” he added.
But criticism of the law was swift, filling the very sites the government was seeking to control.
Yaman Akdeniz, an expert in online rights, wrote on Twitter that “a new and dark period in Turkey is starting.”
“The aim is to silence,” he wrote. “It is the intention of the government to clean its past from critical content including news coverage of corruption allegations as well as all sorts of irregularities.”
Even without the new bill, Turkey blocked access to more than 400,000 websites by the end of 2019, according to Mr. Akdeniz, whose organization, the Freedom of Expression Association, compiles an annual report on internet access in the country.
According to his analysis, last year more than 130,000 web addresses were blocked; 40,000 posts on Twitter taken down; 10,000 YouTube videos removed; and 6,200 Facebook posts scrubbed from the site.
For many in Turkey, social media is the last forum where they can publicly express grievances on topics raging from violence against women to political corruption.
Before the vote, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the law “would give the state powerful tools for asserting even more control over the media landscape.”
Quinn McKew, executive director of Article 19, an advocacy group for an open internet and free expression, said that the law placed companies in a difficult position.
“Social media companies face either becoming the long arm of the state censorship or having access to their platforms slowed so much that they are in effect blocked in Turkey,” she said. “Given the erosion of the rule of law in Turkey under the current government, tech companies cannot rely on the courts to challenge blocking decisions or requests for user data.”
Twitter and Facebook declined to comment on the bill. According to Twitter’s transparency report for the first half of 2019, Turkey had the highest number of content removal request, with more than 6,000.
Raymond Zhong, Adam Satariano and Carlotta Gall contributed reporting.