YouTube’s decision to appoint local representative in Turkey will increase censorship, rights watchdogs say

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YouTube’s move to appoint a local representative in Turkey will inevitably lead to an increase in arbitrary censorship and compromise people’s privacy and right of access to information, and could implicate YouTube in human rights violations, said Human Rights Watch, ARTICLE 19 and the Freedom of Expression Association (İFÖD) in a joint statement on Friday.

The statement said YouTube’s decision also sets a dangerous precedent that makes it harder for other tech companies to refuse to appoint a local representative in Turkey and more difficult for YouTube and other companies to refuse to appoint local representatives in countries around the world with weak rule of law frameworks and equally problematic legislation that may require it. The rights watchdogs said YouTube should be a partner in efforts to challenge the law and champion the right to free speech, instead of cooperating with this form of state interference with freedom of expression.

“The main social media companies quite rightly have so far chosen not to comply with this draconian law, which facilitates censorship,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “YouTube’s decision to comply with the requirement to set up a local representative in the belief that it will be possible to ride out the storm and hold out against a flood of take-down requests is deeply misguided and blinkered to the deplorable climate for free speech in Turkey.”

The Turkish parliament approved an amendment to the law on Internet crimes in July. The bill sets forth progressive sanctions forcing social media platforms with more than 1 million connections a day to appoint a representative in Turkey with whom the Turkish authorities can resolve problems arising from cases of insult, intimidation and violation of privacy.

The bill obligates social media platforms to respond within 48 hours to complaints about “violations of personal rights” or to judicial orders to remove content. The social network provider that fails to remove offending content within 24 hours after a court ruling will be held responsible for damages incurred by the content.

Until now no other companies have decided to appoint a representative in Turkey despite getting fined for not doing so.

“The appointment of a representative in adherence to the law brings with it the obligation to comply with unjustified and politically motivated take-down and content removal requests by the Turkish authorities,” the organizations said.

According to the rights watchdogs, YouTube’s announcement is deeply troubling and reflects the company’s failure to understand the existing threats and violations to freedom of expression in Turkey and how this will facilitate further erosion of that right. Critical expression is routinely censored in Turkey, and far-reaching executive influence over courts means that the judiciary rarely protects free speech.

Turkish authorities make an enormous number take-down and content removal requests in violation of freedom of expression and information. According to research carried out by İFÖD’s EngelliWeb initiative, by the end of 2019 Turkey had blocked access to 408,494 websites, 130,000 URLs, 7,000 Twitter accounts, 40,000 tweets, 10,000 YouTube videos and 6,200 pieces of Facebook content.

“In the absence of due process and an independent judiciary, including functioning democratic institutions such as the Constitutional Court, it will be impossible for YouTube or any social media platform to protect the rights of users in Turkey as they will become the long arm of the Turkish state,” said Yaman Akdeniz, one of the founders of İFÖD.

The joint statement said companies like YouTube have a responsibility to respect human rights and mitigate harm as set out in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“The tech companies should not bow to this pressure or enter into behind-closed-doors agreements with the authorities,” said Sarah Clarke, head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19. “As long as the environment for freedom of expression and the rule of law is this hostile in Turkey, other social media platforms should continue not to comply with the amendments to the Internet law.”

ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch and İFÖD called on YouTube to reconsider its decision to appoint a local representative, clarify how the company intends to respect the rights to freedom of expression and privacy in Turkey and publish the company’s Human Rights Impact Assessment that led to the decision to appoint a representative office in Turkey.

The organizations also urged the Turkish government to repeal the new law, which will negatively affect millions of users of social media platforms in Turkey.

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