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A masked man holds a placard that reads "don't touch my life and my Internet" during a rally in Ankara, Turkey, last month against a bill that would, among other things, allow Turkey's telecommunications authority to directly block access to websites or remove content deemed to be violating privacy without a court decision. / Burhan Ozbilici, AP

ISTANBUL - Europe is voicing concern Thursday over new Turkish legislation that would tighten government controls over the Internet.

Turkey's Parliament on Wednesday approved measures allowing the government to block websites without seeking permission from a court and require Internet providers to keep records on Web users' activities for two years for authorities.

Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, said on Twitter Thursday that the legislation is a step back in an "already suffocating environment for media freedom."

Many people in Turkey say the law, which must still be signed by the president, is intended to silence dissent.

"One man can order a website to be closed, it's really anti-democratic," said lawyer Serhat Koc, an activist with Turkey's Pirate Party, which has been campaigning against the bill.

Turkey's Parliament approved the law late Wednesday with a show of hands. Critics believe the law is part of a surveillance network to tamp down anti-government protests. Last month, police violently dispersed hundreds of demonstrators who rallied in Istanbul, Ankara and the coastal city of Izmir. Protesters flew banners and chanted slogans that brought a crackdown by riot police.

The bill was unveiled in December, a day after family members of top politicians were implicated in a wide-ranging corruption probe targeting the prime minister's family and inner political circle. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has so far been able to contain the probe by sacking hundreds of prosecutors and judges and reassigning thousands of police, saying his government is the victim of an international plot to undermine Turkey's world standing.

But in recent weeks videotapes and audio recordings from wiretaps have surfaced online that implicate Erdogan and his associates in shady dealings with business groups.

Geoffrey King, internet advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said his group is "disappointed" that Turkey has taken a step that gives the government broad censorship powers to prevent news of such scandals from being made public.

"Clearly if these amendments were to pass they would be very useful in clamping down on embarrassing information coming out," he said.

"We will remain vigilant about its application to the press and its effect on the press in Turkey," King said. "The Internet has the potential to be the greatest enabler of human expression. It also has the potential to be the greatest tool of social control."

So far Washington has refrained from criticizing its ally directly but has registered concern about Internet freedom.

"As the Turkish government evaluates its approach to Internet freedom, we hope the highest standards of openness and free expression will be protected," said State Department spokeswoman Katherine Pfaff in comments published on CPJ's website.

The law requires service providers to take down objectionable content within four hours and any page found in violation by the country's telecom authority or face fines up to $44,500. It would also close loopholes and technical work-arounds that are popular in a country that has already blocked an estimated 40,000 sites since 2007.

"This is not just about blocking access to certain types of content. They are trying to build up a new infrastructure to surveil people and collect data about all Internet users from Turkey," said Yaman Akdeniz, law professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University. "This obviously has serious implications, unprecedented I would say."

Turkey's current laws are designed to protect minors from harmful content. Many of the sites blocked are pornographic but some alternative media outlets and video sharing sites have also been banned.

Business groups have also weighed in. The Turkish Industry and Business Association penned a letter this week to the Family and Social Policies Ministry that proposed the bill. It warned that the restrictions would undermine investment and undermine the separation of powers by allowing the executive to censor content at will.

Turkey is a very wired country. It has one of the highest Internet usage rates in Europe with about 33 million registered Facebook accounts in a country of about 76 million people.

With government pressure on traditional media outlets like newspapers and television stations well-documented, many people go online to share and receive news.

"The only reliable information to obtain for the Turkish people and people living in Turkey is through social media and alternative news sites," Akdeniz said. "Facebook groups and Twitter have become crucially important for many people including myself."

That has led top politicians like Erdogan to condemn sites like Twitter as a tool used for extremists. During the height of the Gezi Park protests last June the prime minister declared, "To me, social media is the worst menace to society."

But rather than crack down on social media Erdogan's AK Party initially chose to fight fire with fire. This summer the party reportedly enlisted around 6,000 online volunteers to boost its presence online.

But that has apparently not been enough, said Akdeniz, and the government may resort to cruder methods to control the online sphere.

"There are other countries like Iran, Syria and China that try to deploy similar controls and unfortunately Turkey is moving toward that direction," he said.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Europe warns of Turkey Internet censorship

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