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APC condemns new regulatory powers to block websites and gather user data

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) strongly condemns the Turkish government for amending a law that tightens internet censorship. The law, which now grants the Telecommunications Directorate (TIB) extensive powers to block access to websites without a court order, comes on the heels of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Istanbul on 2-5 September 2014.

On 11 September, “We all woke up to find that TIB has been granted full force to shut down websites. The fact that TIB will now be able to access online user traffic without requiring a court order means breaching the privacy of internet users,” says Güneş Tavmen, author of the Global Information Society Watch Special Report on Turkey.

According to Index on Internet Censorship, between May 2007 and July 2014 Turkey blocked access to some 48,000 websites under the controversial Internet Law No. 5651. Attendees at the recent IGF in Istanbul experienced this first hand, including APC staff who had difficulties accessing the APC website in the days prior to the IGF, when APC’s URL was temporarily blocked due to efforts to comply with Law No. 5651.

The newly amended law scales up censorship by including vague provisions that allow blocking to “protect public order” or “prevent a crime from being committed”. Critics say these provisions are too subjective and will pave the way for abusing power.

The timing of the new legislation, after a UN-mandated forum to discuss key issues in internet governance, is especially cause for concern. “I think the fact that the Turkish government managed to tame most of the critiques against internet freedom in Turkey during the IGF has encouraged them to tighten things. The timing could hardly be a coincidence,” says Tavmen.

Tavmen points out that the recent amendments to internet regulation were part of an omnibus bill that contained more than a hundred articles related to 40 other laws. Although the bill was open to discussion in the Parliament for some time, the internet-related amendments were added to the bill in the middle of the night without prior public notice.

The impact of internet censorship and mass surveillance on freedom of speech was a concern raised by various human rights organisations at the IGF. A team of internet rights activists brought these concerns to the Human Rights Council 27th session (HRC27) in Geneva last week when they addressed a panel on the right to privacy in the digital age. The need for national institutions to respect human rights and for regional human rights mechanisms to help make this happen was one of the messages delivered by APC to HRC27, on behalf of participants at the IGF roundtable on digital trust and the internet and human rights.

There is now a sense of urgency for action to be taken to repeal regressive legislation in Turkey. “The amendments that came into force last February were already against privacy and freedom of online expression; with these last minute changes that have not been discussed publicly, the internet in Turkey is hardly an open and secure way of communication now,” says Tavmen.

According to Reporters Without Borders, “Coming just after the end of the Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul, the amendments showed that the Turkish authorities are ready to go even further down the road of Internet censorship.”