Lawmakers back away from compulsory online porn filter
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Lawmakers back away from compulsory online porn filter

Depite approval by ministers, Communications Ministry opposes measure that would force users to ask for pornography

Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli during a Knesset committee meeting, August 16, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli during a Knesset committee meeting, August 16, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Lawmakers are backing off a bill that would force Israeli internet providers to censor pornography by default — a move the bill’s proponents said was aimed at clamping down on rampant underage access to adult content online.

The bill was approved by cabinet ministers Sunday in a unanimous vote in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, but opposition from regulators in the Communications Ministry the following day has led lawmakers to reconsider.

Under the terms of the current bill, all online pornography would be automatically filtered out by Israeli internet service providers (ISPs), while users who want to opt out of the censorship would be required to notify their service providers either in writing, by phone, or via the provider’s website.

Opponents of the measure noted that this would create a de facto government-accessible list of believed pornography consumers and could require intrusive government regulation of Israelis’ internet access to maintain and enforce a national proscribed content list.

In its Monday statement, quoted by Haaretz, the Communications Ministry, which regulates internet access in Israel, said: “The position of the ministry was and remains that no content on the internet should be pre-filtered, and that the various ISPs are obligated to inform the customer of the existence of offensive content online and to supply customers with filtering programs for free.”

The bill enjoys broad support in the political class, demonstrated by Sunday’s cabinet committee vote to green-light the measure as well as the co-sponsor signatures of several left-wing opposition MKs.

After Communications Ministry officials made their case Monday against the proposed blanket ban, lawmakers said they would look to revamp the bill in order to fulfill its purpose of empowering parents to restrict their children’s access to adult content, but without compromising the privacy of internet users.

Israeli ISPs are required by law to provide content-filtering systems free of charge to customers who ask for them.

Existing regulations say providers must notify their customers of the availability of such services, but MKs say many parents remain unaware of the option.

On Monday, the bill’s author, MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli from the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party, said she would propose a new version of the bill that will not require automatic censoring but would heighten the onus on ISPs to inform users about available filtering options.

MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli from the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party speaks in front of the Knesset. October 31, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli from the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party speaks in front of the Knesset. October 31, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The obligation of the ISP will be intensified so that [it] will be required to inform the customer by text message and email [about filtering software] when they sign up,” promises the new version of the bill, as quoted by Haaretz.

For nearly a decade, various lawmakers have been trying to advance legislation to prevent children from viewing pornography on the internet. Previous bills have failed to make headway.

Moalem-Refaeli insisted Sunday that her bill was not intended to curtail free access to the internet.

“This isn’t Iran,” she told Channel 2.

But, she added, “as parliamentarians and public leaders, we must put up road signs that say ‘this is how we think society should behave. The average age at which children are exposed to pornographic sites is 8. I don’t think it is right for us to leave things like that.”

She said a similar default filter on adult content was introduced in other Western countries, notably Britain.

Moalem acknowledged the possibility that non-pornographic sites would be filtered by accident — such as sites dealing with breast cancer — but insisted this was a challenge that could be overcome.

“I am not interested in blocking a campaign for breast cancer awareness, as a woman and a survivor of breast cancer,” she said. “That is not what we are talking about. But during the process of legislation it will become clear what we are talking about.”

Sites that contain both adult-oriented and family-suitable material also present difficulties to censoring systems, and while Israeli law could require local websites to clearly tag content in a manner that assists the filters, Moalem conceded that “as an Israeli lawmaker I have no influence on a site that isn’t Israeli.”

“In the balance between the private individual and society we take a wide view. We are calling to create a society that protects itself from things for which we pay a heavy price. A person who is interested in these sites needs to understand that at the moment Israel is in a process, that he is an individual but part of a whole society.”

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