Turkey’s national assembly passed two last-minute amendments today expanding the grounds under which the High Council for Telecommunications (TIB) can temporarily block websites without a court order, and allowing it to gather Internet user connection data independently of any ongoing investigation.
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.
Broader grounds for blocking
The TIB has already been able to order the “preventive blocking” of websites since February in cases of “attacks on privacy” or “discriminatory or insulting” content. Under one of today’s amendments, it can now also block sites in order to end an attack on “national security,” to “protect public order” or to “prevent a crime being committed.”
“Blocking a website, even for 48 hours, without referring to a court violates the principle of the separation of powers as well as freedom of information,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“By increasing the possibility of blocking sites in this way, the authorities are yet again reaffirming their determination to control the Internet. Online resources play a key role in informing the Turkish public, one that is all the more important because harassment of the traditional media is being stepped up. We urge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan not to sign these amendments into law.”
Under procedures established in February, Internet Service Providers have four hours to implement “preventive blocking” ordered by the TIB, which is then supposed to contact a judge within 24 hours, to obtain his or her confirmation within 48 hours. The TIB does not have to file a complaint in order to issue a blocking order.
Last March, in the absence of any legal provision about “national security,” the Turkish courts used “offending the memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk,” the Turkish republic’s founder, as grounds for blocking YouTube.
The video-sharing website had been used to divulge the content of foreign ministry discussions about Syria. If the national assembly and president confirm the amendment, the authorities will no longer have to jump through such hoops to justify blocking sites and will be able to do it on “national security” grounds.
The fact that “national security” is a very broad and vague term makes this all the more alarming.
More surveillance of Internet users
The other amendment passed today after being submitted just two days ago allows the TIB to gather all Internet user connection data independently of any judicial investigation. A similar provision included in a bill passed in February was dropped at then President Abdullah Gül’s request.
Until now, although Internet Service Providers are required to keep connection data for six months to two years, the TIB was unable to access this data without a court order issued as part of judicial proceeding targeting a specific Internet user.
The government said the amendment was needed for reasons of speed. “When the courts demand (...) certain data linked to Internet traffic, they take at least a month to obtain it,” an official told the newspaper Hürriyet. “If the information is stored directly by the TIB, it will be possible to act quickly when a judge makes a request.”
The data in question includes websites visited, the time spent in each one, and the identity of email recipients.
The TIB’s new powers have been repeatedly used in recent months to censor online content critical of the authorities. Twitter and YouTube, the Vimeo and SoundCloud platforms and the Yenidonem.com and Vagus.tv news sites were all blocked to prevent the dissemination of recordings that supported claims of government corruption during an election period.
The TIB blocked the Issuu.com platform on 6 September in connection with the magazine Demoktrati’s cover with a controversial photo of an adviser to the prime minister hitting a demonstrator.
Turkish civil society is all the more worried about this extension of the TIB’s powers because President Erdogan, who was until recently the prime minister, has made it clear he intends to abolish the TIB and transfer all of its powers to the MIT, Turkey’s leading intelligence agency, which is under his direct control.
The MIT is already allowed to keep the Turkish public and media under generalized surveillance under a reform that took effect in April. This reform also shields the MIT from judicial and media curiosity, with investigative journalists risking up to nine years in prison if they publish information leaked from within the MIT.
Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Turkish Association of Journalists (TGC) and Turkey’s Alternative Informatics Association jointly denounced the growing Internet censorship in Turkey at a news conference in Istanbul on 4 September, during the IGF.
The NGOs were particularly critical of the role of the TIB and MIT.