Turkey's parliament has adopted a new Internet bill roundly criticized as an assault by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on freedom of expression, access to information and investigative journalism. The measure was approved as Erdogan's government is in the midst of a sweeping corruption probe that has shaken his Cabinet.
After hours of debate, the measure was adopted late on Wednesday in parliament, where Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) dominates with 319 of the 550 seats.
The bill permits a government agency, the Telecommunications Communications Presidency (TIB), to block access to websites without court authorization if they are deemed to violate privacy or to contain material seen as "insulting."
"There is no transparency. A group in TIB just makes the decisions," said Mustafa Akgul, head of the Internet Technology Association, an open Internet advocacy organization.
"We don't know how they make the decisions, how many bans they have, why they do it ... They don't have any checks and balances," he told Al Jazeera.
The legislation would also force Internet providers to keep records on Web users' activities for two years and make them available to authorities on request, without notifying the users.
The measures are part of a package of legislation, the rest of which is expected to be approved by parliament on Thursday and then signed into law by President Abdullah Gul.
Turkey already has strict Internet laws under which thousands of websites have been blocked, from news portals viewed as close to Kurdish militants to gay dating sites. More than 40,000 sites are blocked, according to Turkey's EngelliWeb.com, which tracks access restrictions.
Under the existing legislation signed in 2007, websites including the blogging tool Wordpress and video-sharing services DailyMotion and Vimeo have periodically been blocked by court orders, while YouTube was off limits for two years until 2010.
Some alternative news websites cannot be accessed, and people have been fined, jailed or given suspended sentences — like world-renowned pianist Fazil Say in 2013 — for tweets insulting religious values.
At the start of the debate on Wednesday, opposition lawmaker Hasan Oren went so far as to compare Erdogan to Hitler. "When you came to power, you talked of enhancing democracy in Turkey. Now you are trying to implement fascism," Oren said.
The European Commission also lashed out at the bill, saying it raised "serious concerns" in light of Turkey's candidacy for European Union membership.
"The Turkish public deserves more information and more transparency, not more restrictions," European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said Thursday. The law "needs to be revised in line with European standards," he told reporters.
The government has rejected accusations that the bill amounts to censorship, insisting it would protect privacy. Internet freedom activists, however, believe that their government designed the bill to rapidly silence its critics.
The proposals come amid parallel moves by Erdogan to push through contentious judicial reforms as he fights to keep the lid on a deeply damaging corruption and bribery probe entangling businessmen, several of his Cabinet members and ministers' sons.
Social media and video-sharing sites have been awash with alleged recordings of ministers, including Erdogan, and businessmen close to him, presented as evidence of wrongdoing.
Reporters Without Borders said the aim of the measures was "to reinforce cyber-censorship, government control of the Internet and surveillance."
The Committee to Protect Journalists called it a "slide into Internet authoritarianism" in a country that is "the leading jailer of journalists worldwide.”
Even Turkey's Industry and Business Association was critical, saying the proposals "conflict with the principles of checks and balances" and would increase censorship and deter investors.
Al Jazeera and wire services