In recent months, the public’s eyes have been opened to the growing threat that technology and social media companies pose, realising with shock the extent to which the companies would go to invade users’ privacy and limit their expression.
Despite scurried attempts by WhatsApp and mainstream media companies to debunk those claims and calm concerns by releasing alleged corrections, millions are reported to have left the app and moved to other messaging apps, leading to the company delaying its new privacy terms.
Twitter then made its own move by permanently banning then-US President Donald Trump’s account following his supporters’ storming of Capitol Hill, as well as banning an account suspected linked to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The actions taken by WhatsApp and Twitter are nothing out of the ordinary, as WhatsApp’s update was a minor addition to Facebook’s already-loose sharing of data and Twitter has long been infamous for violating freedom of speech and leaning towards a political side. But despite that, these latest moves woke users up to the control such companies have on their data and speech, shaking their loyalty to the platforms.
To make matters worse and conspiracies somewhat believable, the prominent tech companies Apple, Amazon and Google all banned the new and alternative social media app Parler, due to its alleged affiliations with conservative figures and voices.
Those ranging from the public to the politicians and world leaders have grown fearful of the enormous powers and influence the social media and tech companies have acquired, with the likes of Google and Twitter being richer than entire countries.
Of course, a multinational company having such wealth and power to match states is nothing new – non-state actors such as banks and corporations have held that status for decades – but the difference now is that these tech companies possess the very power to silence, promote, defame, de-platform and influence entire populations on a global scale. It is a level that even news and media corporations could only dream of. That scares governments.
Amid this situation, the only country and government to have truly begun the fight against the expanding power of big tech is Turkey. Unlike the usual tactic of banning some of these platforms as was done by China, North Korea, and Iran, Turkey has instead initiated its own model of limiting their influence.
Last July, the Turkish government passed a landmark controversial law which obligates social media companies to appoint legal representatives within Turkey in order to deal with any complaints or cases regarding content on their platforms.
Under that law, which also requires social media data to be stored in the country, if a company does not comply then it will be subject to fines, then advertising bans, followed by a potential reduction in its bandwidth which would slow down its operational use for users.
Since then, Ankara has shown that the law is not an empty threat when it slapped a $1.2 million fine on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and others last November after they failed to appoint their legal representatives. More recently, last month Turkey imposed advertising bans on Twitter, Pinterest, and Periscope for their refusal to comply with the law.
The Turkish government and military even switched their messaging system away from WhatsApp and to the locally-produced Turkish app BiP over concerns of privacy and user data, leading its ally Pakistan to decide to develop its own messaging app.
Ankara’s stance is best summed up in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speech in January in which he stated: “We will not bow to the pressure of social media companies that consider themselves above the law in front of the rights of our people.”
While he acknowledged the issue of inciting violence on such platforms and said that “violent events targeting democracy and democratic institutions” cannot be tolerated, he also stressed that “we cannot also accept the closure of people’s communication channels without any legal basis.” The social media giants’ banning of Trump was a prime example of “digital fascism”, he said.
With the Turkish model of limiting the companies’ influences, Erdogan warned that “we will not let you make money from ads in this country without having an office. We won’t let you rob Turkey. When we began to fine them, they put themselves on track.”
What we are seeing from Turkey is the world’s first attempt to truly regulate the social media industry on a governmental level, after roughly two decades when platforms survived a Wild West sort of existence where regulation neither applied nor could governments really intervene besides banning them entirely.
Even in the US, where many of these companies are based, the debate around regulations is still ongoing. Yes, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey did testify to the US Senate last year regarding legal issues around data sharing and misinformation, and yes, Facebook was forced to pay $5 billion in fines to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2019, but no definitive and long-term solution has yet been identified by Washington.
Turkey’s model, therefore, is something unique in governmental efforts to crackdown on the sweeping powers that social media companies wield. There are, however, legitimate concerns about the Turkish government’s intentions and the result that it could further limit freedom of speech and press within the country.
This entire issue also has a strong tinge of irony, as a decade ago it was social media that was considered by many to be a platform to boost democracy and counter the power of authoritarian regimes. The Arab Spring was a prime example of that, it was a time when social media sites gave hope to populations that they too could hold power and have their voices heard.
Like a revolutionary government that gradually turns into a repressive regime, that era of hope in social media seems to now be overshadowed by fear of the consequences of expressing one’s opinion. Turkey’s regulations may turn out to be something of a balance of power.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.