Representatives of popular social media platform TikTok have stated that the company is fully cooperating with Turkish authorities in complying with a restrictive law regulating Internet publication, which many believe was enacted to silence opposition voices on social media. TikTok also announced that it has established a specific communication channel for requests sent by Turkish courts to remove content and ban accounts.
Speaking before a parliamentary committee last week Farah Tukan, TikTok’s head of government relations and public policy responsible for the Middle East, Turkey, Africa and Pakistan, said they are aware that misinformation and disinformation are extremely important to the Turkish government. That is precisely what government officials offered as justification for a strict new law that will reportedly introduce new restrictions on social media before the 2023 general election.
TikTok’s public policy manager responsible for Turkey, Emir Gelen, part of the team that visited parliament, said compliance with legal regulations is one of the issues they are very sensitive about and pay the utmost attention to, adding that they closely follow all kinds of legal developments.
Gelen also assured lawmakers that TikTok has fulfilled and continues to fulfill all obligations for social network providers as required under Law No. 5651, which establishes the legal procedures through which content published on the Internet can be blocked by an administrative decision or court order.
The law requires that foreign social network service providers whose services are accessed from Turkey more than 1 million times a day appoint a Turkish national as their in-country permanent representative and take measures to store the data of users located in Turkey within Turkey itself.
Owned by Chinese ByteDance, TikTok works with companies that offer cloud technology services, which is how they store user information. Their servers are located in the US and Singapore. Although it does not fulfill the requirement that its servers be in Turkey, it seems that this is not yet seen as a problem by the Turkish government since TikTok has appointed a representative, started to pay taxes and has approached legal requests positively.
TikTok officials also announced that they support many social events and aid campaigns, emphasizing that they distributed food to the needy in the holy month of Ramadan and that they were in cooperation with the Red Crescent. Given the fact that it is rare for global companies operating in Turkey to participate in aid activities related to Ramadan, it seemed like an effort to appear sympathetic to the Islamist government.
TikTok will face more legal requests
According to data announced by TikTok, in the first six months of 2021 the company received 131 official requests that included 270 content removals and 20 account bans. A total of 250 pieces of content were removed and 18 account were banned. TikTok complied with 98 percent of government requests to remove accounts or restrict content.
Turkey was second only to Russia in sending the most requests to TikTok in 2021. In previous years it seems that Turkish courts did not take any action on TikTok since the platform had just started operating and was not a very political medium. The government made only two requests in 2019 and 22 in 2020.
TikTok is a video platform with more entertainment content than other social media platforms, so political content is less. However, Turkish users are increasingly uploading political content including videos of people complaining about rising prices and the cost of living. In addition, political parties and politicians have also started uploading content to TikTok. It would not be wrong to predict that TikTok will face more legal requests in the coming years.
Although some social media companies initially protested Law no. 6561, they backed down one by one after the government announced it would cut bandwidth and impose high fines. Turkey is a profitable market with its young population and high access to mobile services that can’t easily be ignored.
Minutes of the meeting at which TikTok made a presentation before the parliamentary Committee on Digital Outlets:komisyon_tutanaklari
Google was the first global company to announce that it would cooperate with the government. Nordic Monitor previously reported that Gönenç Gürkaynak, who represents Google and its YouTube service as well as Twitter in Turkey, said in a statement in parliament that he managed to break the hesitation felt by global social media companies to comply with the new Turkish law, which was adopted to further clamp down on criticism of the Erdoğan government.
“I can proudly say that it [Google] was one of the first companies to do so [comply with the new law]”, Gürkaynak told lawmakers on December 2, 2021, bragging about how his client rushed to meet the demands of the Turkish authorities.
“As you can imagine, when such legislation is passed at a time when there was hesitation from the viewpoint of international firms such as ‘Who will do what, should we be the first to do it or not, what will the effects be?’ we think Google’s stance by taking such a step [to appoint a representative] on January 12, 2021 set an example in terms of efforts to comply with the legislation,” he added in his statement to the newly established parliamentary Committee on Digital Outlets.
Last October Erdoğan had announced that a media bill that would impose new restrictions would enter into force. According to Turkish media, the new bill calls for five years in prison for spreading online disinformation or misinformation. The bill is also intended to set up a directorate to monitor critical content. It is no secret that the Erdoğan government, which controls almost all media outlets in Turkey, is unhappy with critical content, especially that published abroad, on social media and plans to build a legal mechanism that censors critical posts and videos.