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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Turks Protest New Internet Restrictions, in the Streets and Online

ISTANBUL â€" The police used force to disperse thousands of Turks who gathered late Saturday to protest new legislation that increased government control of the Internet.

Social networks, which have been a source of irritation for the government in recent months as a vehicle for publishing leaks about officials accused of corruption, were soon awash with snapshots and video clips of police firing tear water cannons and tear gas at protesters, who replied by hurling insults and stones at armored police vehicles on Istiklal Street, a popular pedestrian walkway in central Istanbul.

The bill approved in Parliament last week â€" granting a government-appointed body the authority to block Internet content without any prior court order â€"was widely criticized as evidence of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies after more than a decade in power.

Supporters of the legislation referred to it as a measure designed to protect the privacy of individuals accused of wrongdoing, while opponents condemned the new powers as a politically motivated move by a government beset by a widening corruption scandal.

The prime minister has called an investigation into corruption among relatives of senior members of his party a “judicial coup” initiated by members of a rival Islamist political faction led by Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in exile in the United States.

In response, Mr. Erdogan’s government has purged thousands of police officers and hundreds of prosecutors who were involved in corruption investigations, and drafted legislation to assert further government control over the Internet and the judiciary.

Many expected Abdullah Gul, the country’s president, to veto the bill in light of his prior statements in support of online liberties, despite his close links to Mr. Erdogan as a founder of his ruling party. Mr. Gul, however, approved the bill, albeit promising that the government would iron out shortcomings in a set of amendments.

Despite the Turkish government’s at times heavy-handed response to heckling on social networks, both Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gul have amassed huge followings on Twitter.

Mr. Erdogan, who recently filed suit against a journalist for criticizing him on the platform, has more than 4 million Twitter followers. Mr. Gul, who has used his feed to post a mix of serious comments on domestic and foreign policy and boasts about his contacts in Silicon Valley, has been steadily adding followers for years, even pulling slightly ahead of the premier.

In a response to critics of the legislation posted on Twitter on Tuesday, the president said amendments to the new law would oblige the authorities to seek a court order to either remove content from websites or to gain access to the metadata of Internet users.

“In your messages, you passed on your criticisms about especially two issues,” Mr. Gul wrote. “I am also aware of drawbacks regarding these two points. Nevertheless, I’ve contacted our government and shared my thoughts about these two issues and asked for their correction. I’m pleased that concerns about these two articles would be eliminated in legal amendments tomorrow.”

In a matter of hours, Mr. Gul was punished by an online protest that cost him more than 80,000 followers, as messages tagged #UnfollowGul spread across the social network.

Analysts said that once the new Internet legislation goes into effect, though, leaked recordings of government officials could be easily removed from websites with the pretext of protection of privacy, obstructing people’s right to information. “The president left us with an open-ended process with some amendments that we are not sure whether ever be voted on in Parliament,” Burcak Unsal, a cyberlaw expert told The Lede in an interview. “Even after suggested changes, freedom of information will not be secured.”

Other online campaigns were also launched to attract public attention on possible consequences of the legislation. The newspaper Radikal began erasing some content from its website every four hours, to dramatize the potential impact of the new law’s four-hour limit set for the removal of content deemed improper by the authorities.

Two web portals, Bianet.org and Sosyalmedya.com, covered their online titles with black banners to protest the legislation.

Cagil Omerbas, a Bianet writer, prepared an Internet user’s manual of ways to bypass Internet restrictions, like using proxy servers and Virtual Private Networks.

Although no exact figures have been published by the authorities, it is estimated that more than 30,000 websites have already been blocked in Turkey. Turkey topped Google’s “request to remove content” list in June of last year, having asked the company to delete more than 12,000 items in the prior six months.

The State Department echoed criticism of the legislation from rights organizations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “We share the serious concerns raised by the O.S.C.E. and others that the law has the potential to severely restrict free expression, freedom of the press, and access to information over the Internet,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said at a briefing on Wednesday.