Israel is aiming to build an international coalition to force the world’s leading social media giants to prevent their platforms from being abused to peddle incitement to terrorism.
The move, which was unveiled by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, aims at requiring Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and other social networks to take greater responsibility for such content.
While some experts consider the idea unworkable — arguing that the terms of service of such platforms protect them from any legal threat, and that the preventative measures Erdan wants to see introduced are not possible technologically, others say a coalition pushing for change could be effective, and certainly stands more of a chance than an effort led by Israel alone.
The social media giants “make millions but claim they are not responsible for content, and that they only provide a platform,” a spokesperson for Erdan told The Times of Israel. “That is not going to wash. We are planning to put a stop to this irresponsibility, and we are going to do it as part of an international coalition that has had enough of this behavior as well.”
On Sunday, Erdan introduced the idea of building an international legal coalition to take action against social media platforms if they do not proactively prevent the use of their systems to upload videos, songs, photos, and other content that inspire would-be terrorists to pick up knives, guns, rocks, and other weapons to attack Israelis.
At the weekly cabinet meeting, Erdan presented ministers with an “index of incitement,” showing a correlation between instances of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic content posted by Palestinians, and the level of violence by Palestinians against Israelis.
Innumerable posts, videos and tweets have extolled the virtues of attacking Israelis in the ongoing terror wave, with terror groups and private individuals posting incitement, songs hailing the terrorists, and instructional videos telling them how best to attack. In several cases, attackers have posted their own messages ahead of such attacks.
There were numerous things Israel could do to combat the phenomenon, said Erdan. In a statement Sunday, Erdan said that he “intended to methodically expose the Palestinian culture of incitement among relevant communities around the world.”
Among Erdan’s proposals for action: Linking a reduction in incitement to assistance provided by Israel or other parties to the Palestinian Authority; publicizing the link between incitement, both by individual Palestinians and the Authority itself, to violence against Israelis; and developing legislation in Israel and abroad to prosecute social media platforms for failing to keep calls for violence and hateful materials off their platforms.
Erdan’s plan, said his spokesperson, calls for developing legislation in conjunction with European countries, most of which “are very interested in this idea. The legislation would have common features, such as defining what constitutes incitement and what the responsibilities of social networks regarding it are. Companies that do not comply will find themselves hauled into court, paying a penalty.”
The participating countries would be part of a loose coalition that would keep an eye on content and where it was being posted, and members of the coalition would work to demand that the platforms remove the content that was posted in any of their countries at the request of members.
“This is a perfectly logical and just project,” Erdan’s spokesperson said. “If a hotel was being used as a venue for a hate group, we would demand that the hotel break its contract, and we would lean on other hotels to abstain from hosting them, so that the hate group would not be able to hold its event. This is no different.”
Erdan’s proposal came weeks after the son of a Jerusalem man killed in a terror attack urged lawmakers to do more to quash social media incitement. Richard Lakin, a US-born teacher and peace activist, was shot and seriously wounded on October 13, and died of his injuries two weeks later. His son, Micah Avni, has been campaigning against social media incitement, with Lakin named as lead plaintiff in a 20,000-complainant-strong lawsuit against Facebook.
At a Knesset hearing in November, Avni argued that social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, virtually inhabited by millions of people every day, should be thought of as countries or continents. It would follow, he said, that it is necessary to regulate social media in the same way that nations regulate other areas such as finance, transportation, communication, broadcast, healthcare, and food.
Reaction to Erdan proposal from attorneys who spoke to The Times of Israel was mixed. One attorney involved in the highest echelons of the Internet business in Israel asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of her position. She said the terms of service of social media platforms protect them from prosecution.
“The point of social media platforms is to provide a forum for users to express themselves,” said the attorney. “We wouldn’t want them to micromanage every bit of data that we post, and we probably don’t want the admins at Facebook and Twitter reading or looking at all the images we post, either,” she added.
“In addition, this would be next to impossible to pull off technologically,” the attorney continued. “How would the site know when something negative was uploaded? And even if such a law were passed, the platform might decide that it is just not worth the trouble to do business in the country where they are being prosecuted – like Israel – and just shut off access to their platform altogether. Is that what we really want?”
Attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of the Israel Law Center disagreed, however. Actually, she said, “that is exactly why Erdan is seeking a coalition.”
It turns out that Israel already has in place the legislation needed to prosecute Facebook and other social media sites for anti-Semitic content; a law that allows Israel to prosecute anti-Semites who threaten the existence or welfare of the Jewish people has been on the books for decades. That law, she said, could be used to prosecute social media networks that do not do enough to prevent anti-Israel or anti-Jewish incitement.
But if Israel goes it alone, “then they might decide to cut off ties with us,” said Darshan-Leitner. “That is why Erdan is seeking to build this international coalition. There’s safety in numbers; if Facebook et al. know they are going to have to face the music in a dozen countries, they will be much more amenable to being proactive on this matter than if they were just contending with Israel.”
Darshan-Leitner said she thinks Erdan’s idea will succeed. “While we are perhaps the biggest sufferers of Arab incitement, we are not the only ones. The Europeans, after all, have in recent years been given devastating tastes of what that incitement can lead to — in the terror attacks in Marseille, Paris, Toulouse; in the stream of Muslims in Sweden identifying with IS, and many other incidents and attacks, large and small.
“This is not about freedom of speech,” said Darshan-Leitner. “It’s long ago been established that yelling ‘fire’ in a movie theater is a prosecutable offense. You are free to say what you want, but when what you say leads to damages – much less murder – that’s a different story altogether.”
Twitter and Youtube could not be reached for comment for this piece. In a statement, Facebook said that “we regularly work with safety organisations and policy makers around the world to ensure that people know how to keep safe when using Facebook. There is no place for content encouraging violence, direct threats, terrorism or hate speech on our platform.
“This is a community of over 1.5 billion people, including more than 4 million people in Israel, with clear rules. We have a set of Community Standards to help people understand what is allowed on Facebook, and we urge people to use our reporting tools if they find content that they believe violates these standards, so we can investigate and take swift action. We look forward to continuing dialogue with the government about these issues,” the statement added.