Turkey PM defends new Internet curbs as way to stop 'cyber bullies'

ANKARA (AFP) - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday vehemently rejected criticism of his country's tough new Internet curbs, saying the legislation was necessary to stop "cyber bullies running wild".

"Nobody will be tapped. Nobody's (personal) data on the Internet will be stored. Nobody's freedom will be breached," Erdogan told his ruling party lawmakers in parliament.

Turkey's parliament triggered a storm of protest at home and abroad last week after it approved restrictions to the Internet, with opponents saying they were an attempt by Erdogan to stifle dissent.

Hitting back at international criticism that the new regulations amounted to online censorship, Erdogan said: "Nobody can teach us a lesson."

"There is an Internet world where cyber bullies are running wild," he said, adding that the legal changes were aimed at preventing "blackmail" by enemies.

Under the new restrictions, Turkey's Telecommunications Communications Presidency (TIB) can demand that providers block pages deemed insulting or as invading privacy - and without the need for a judge.

The body will also be able to request users' online communications and traffic information from hosting providers, which will have to retain data for up to two years.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul now has two weeks to sign the Internet law before it comes into force.

Turkey's opposition and numerous rights groups have urged the president not to approve the curbs.

Turkish citizens have also voiced their anger. On Saturday, riot police in Istanbul used tear gas and water cannons to disperse some 2,000 protesters demonstrating against the Internet restrictions.

The timing of the legislation has raised eyebrows, as it comes as Erdogan is battling a major corruption investigation implicating members of his inner circle, seen as the biggest challenge yet to his 11-year-rule.

Some of his critics say the legislation is specifically aimed at stopping details of the high-level probe from being leaked online.

Erdogan has portrayed the graft investigation as a plot against him by people within the Turkish police and judiciary loyal to Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher living in exile in the United States.

His Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has sacked or reassigned thousands of police and prosecutors in response to the probe, prompting questions about the state of democracy in Turkey.

The Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, told AFP that the Internet law raised "new concerns in terms of compatibility with European human rights standards on freedom of expression and freedom of the media".

"The hasty and opaque manner in which these amendments have been pushed through the parliament, without any genuine consultation of the major stakeholders, is also regrettable," he said.

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