Istanbul - A new law that allows the government to block websites and access internet users' browsing history will edge the country closer to Chinese-style censorship and further away from the European Union, activists in Turkey warn.
Local academics and experts also caution that citizens who want to engage in politics might need to start hiding their true identities while surfing the web.
Somewhat ironically, Turkish President Abdullah Gul took to Twitter this week to announce that he had signed the controversial internet bill.
The law, which has been roundly criticised by UN human rights experts, allows the country's national telecommunications authority (TIB) to block specific web pages without first needing a court's approval. Internet service providers will also be required to store subscribers' personal data, such as what sites were visited, for two years.
The data can then be pulled by the government should it deem this necessary. “It is a huge disappointment that Gul went ahead and signed the law.
He had a chance to stand up for free speech, but instead he moved away from democracy, media freedoms and free speech,” said Kirsty Hughes, the head of the advocacy group Index on Censorship. Hughes says the law is a “major attack on internet freedom” that will make it more difficult for Turkey to join the EU.
“What this law does, it provides preemptive powers to the government to block websites on the grounds of protecting privacy,” explains Hakura Fadi Hakura, a Turkey researcher at the Chatham House think-tank in London.
“It will restrict freedom of dissent and the right to criticise or comment on government policy and government activity,” Hakura warns.
By being able to create a profile of internet users through access to their browsing histories, activists and journalists could easily be targeted, experts warn.
The country already has the highest number of reporters in jail in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranks Turkey 154th out of 180 on its press freedom index.
The government says the law is needed to help protect privacy and promote family values. But activists note that more than 40 000 websites are already blocked in Turkey, including nearly all pornographic sites and some political pages critical of the government, such as those belonging to Kurdish nationalist groups.
“I believe this new law might lead to even more anonymous internet activism,” says Erkan Saka, an expert on cyber-culture in Turkey. Google says it received 1 673 requests from Turkish authorities to remove content from its platforms in the first half of 2013, more than six times the amount of requests made by Russia.
A possible amendment to the law now being considered would require retroactive approval of any site blockage by a court. Activists decry this measure as being too little, too late.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who championed the new law, has in the past slammed social media sites as a “menace” to society.
The bill was rushed into law in the wake of a series of corruption scandals that hit Erdogan's government. Many of the accusations had been made public online.
Last year's Gezi Park and Taksim Square protests against the government were organised and promoted on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. By allowing web pages to be blocked without a court order, the country is adopting a style used by the world's most “oppressive governments,” explains Asli Tunc, the head of the Media School at Istanbul's Bilgi University.
In the past, entire websites, such as YouTube were blocked. Under the new law, the government can block only specific pages.
This means users may not even realise they are being censored, as the main site would remain available. This strategy has already been adopted by China.
“You don't know what is being taken out of your webpage. You will never know what type of comments or tweets are gone,” explains Tunc. Saka, the expert on cyber culture, notes that as soon as the law was signed by Gul, people began using Twitter to educate each other about how to bypass government surveillance.
“In one way or another, people will continue with their opposition. The country has a lively internet culture that cannot be ended so soon. But the government still tries. This is a dynamic struggle going on,” says Saka. - Sapa-dpa