As Israel goes after ‘terror-enabling’ Facebook, new bills may miss the mark

Israel says online Palestinian incitement leads to terror attacks, slams social media platform as unresponsive, but legal experts call proposed laws to tackle the issue ‘clumsy,’ ‘scary’

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Illustrative: A Gazan man looking at a pro-Palestinian post on Facebook on April 7, 2013. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)
Illustrative: A Gazan man looking at a pro-Palestinian post on Facebook on April 7, 2013. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)

In the aftermath of the deadly 2015 Paris terror attacks, when Facebook profile photos in the West were overwhelmingly painted red, white and blue in solidarity with France, the social media giant was quietly engaged in a gargantuan clean-up operation.

At the request of the French government, citing a law protecting human dignity, the social media network erased a staggering 32,000 posts that included a specific photo linked to the carnage.

It was the largest amount of “restricted content” by country in Facebook’s twice-yearly report on government requests for access, ahead of India — which had 14,971 posts restricted over legal requests in July-December 2015 “as alleged anti-religious and hate speech that could cause unrest and disharmony within India” — and Turkey, which had 2,078 posts removed during that same period for “a range of offenses including personal rights violations, personal privacy, and defamation of Ataturk,” the first president of modern Turkey.

“When governments believe that something on the Internet violates their laws, they may contact companies like Facebook and ask us to restrict access to that content. When we receive such a request, it is scrutinized to determine if the specified content does indeed violate local laws. If we determine that it does, then we make it unavailable in the relevant country or territory,” the social media network says in its guidelines.

Furious over Facebook’s refusal to remove all of the content it requests deleted, Israel is now jumping on the bandwagon, with proposed legislation that would allow a court order to force Facebook to remove posts calling for violence.

But legal experts warn that the social media giant won’t necessary comply with these orders and with local laws and may even be turned off the Israeli market; that the legislation is “clumsy,” requiring a lengthy legal process for content removal; and that Israel already has incitement laws for online content but rarely enforces them.

Moreover, forcing the international company to share information with states creates a dangerous, “scary” precedent, warns Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a media scholar at the Israel Democracy Institute.

A caricature by Hasan Abadi encourages Palestinians to stab Israeli soldiers [Facebook image]
A caricature by Hasan Abadi encourages Palestinians to stab Israeli soldiers [Facebook image]
At the same time, Israel’s security establishment contends that exposure to online incitement has proven to lead directly to violence, posing a concrete danger to the lives of innocents. Activists, meanwhile, are independently applying pressure on the company to force it to adopt stricter standards on incitement.

“They can’t barricade themselves in their ivory towers in Palo Alto while the blood of Jews is being spilled over here,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of the Israel Law Center, which is representing the families of terror victims in a $1 billion class-action suit against Facebook. “It has to take responsibility to neutralize this incitement. It has the tools to do this and it has the obligation to do this.”

The proposals

In the nearly nine months of Palestinian terror attacks in which over 35 Israelis have been killed, the “lone wolf” terrorists were frequently found to have posted praise for previous attackers on their social media accounts. Many of them mourned relatives killed while attacking Israelis, and peppered their feeds with posts hailing or yearning for “martyrdom.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan — who on Saturday said Facebook was a “monster” that enables terrorism, and charged that its founder Mark Zuckerberg had the blood of 13-year-old Hallel Ariel on his hands — and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked are advancing a bill allowing the government to seek a court order to force the social media group to remove certain content based on police recommendations. The proposal was announced immediately after Shaked and Erdan met with Facebook officials in the Knesset two weeks ago, and will be formally submitted in the coming weeks.

Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, July 31, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 31, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Separately, Zionist Union MK Revital Swid has submitted a bill that would levy an NIS 300,000 ($77,000) fine against Facebook for every post that includes incitement which the social media giant does not immediately scrub. Swid’s bill — signed by both coalition and opposition lawmakers — places the onus on Facebook to actively track posts and delete them, something the company says it does not do, relying instead on users who “flag” problematic posts.

MK Revital Swid of the Zionist Union party. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
MK Revital Swid of the Zionist Union party. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Defending his legislation, Erdan said European countries such as France and Germany already have similar laws in place, and Facebook complies with them. Yet, according to a spokesman for the minister, Facebook recently agreed to remove just 23 out of 74 pages brought to its attention by Israel for spreading Palestinian incitement. “Their policy of removing [content] is very, very, very strict and the bar is set very high,” the spokesman told The Times of Israel.

Facebook also does not recognize Israeli control in the West Bank, the spokesman added. “More than that, if someone writes something problematic and they live in Judea and Samaria, they [Facebook] won’t cooperate with us and they say it’s outside of Israel and therefore they can’t cooperate,” he said. Facebook declined to comment on this allegation.

Finally, he continued, when the Israel Police’s cyber crime unit turns to Facebook with urgent requests to remove posts, officers are forced to contact the company’s office in Ireland, even though it has a large corporate presence in Israel. The process for removing even virulent incitement “could take several hours or more, and we don’t have time for this — we need an immediate response.”

Speaking to Channel 2 on Tuesday, Shaked adopted a more conciliatory tone, saying the law would only be implemented in “extreme” cases. Israel’s coordination with Facebook is good, she noted, and in general the social media company removes some 50% of the posts Israel requests.

According to Facebook’s figures, it supplied some amount of information to Israel in 59.52% of its 294 requests between July and December 2015, and restricted 236 posts in that period. From January to July 2015, 63.22% of Jerusalem’s 174 requests were at least partially approved, and 195 pieces of content restricted. The compliance figures were similar to those of France and Germany, but lower than in Turkey, where over 80% of requests in 2015 saw some measure of compliance from the company.

A screenshot from a cartoon published on the Facebook page of the Fatah movement depicting three Jews fleeing as a car driven by a Palestinian tries to run them over, November 2014.
A screenshot from a cartoon published on the Facebook page of the Fatah movement depicting three Jews fleeing as a car driven by a Palestinian tries to run them over, November 2014.

‘Clumsy,’ ‘scary,’ but necessary?

Next week, Darshan-Leitner will file the class action suit against Facebook on behalf of several families of Israelis killed in terror attacks since October. But even as she says Israel may have “no choice” but to pursue legislation against Facebook, she is clear about the pitfalls of the current proposals.

The proposed law requires the police to turn to the attorney general with the offending content. If the attorney general concludes that it amounts to incitement, police may turn to the courts for an emergency injunction.

That’s “clumsy,” Darshan-Leitner said, since it amounts to a lengthy legal process.

“On the one hand, there is no choice, because this incitement really does cause murder. And this incitement really does need to be dealt with, really does need to be removed. And if the talks until now did not bear fruit, it’s possible there is no alternative [but] to impose it through law. But I don’t know to what extent Facebook will agree to cooperate with the law enforcement authorities in Israel,” she said.

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, chairwoman of Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center (Courtesy: Shurat HaDin)
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, chairwoman of Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center (Courtesy: Shurat HaDin)

Although Facebook has economic interests in Israel, the Israeli market is relatively small, she said. “There is no choice. I just don’t know if Facebook will agree to continue working in Israel as a result of the legislation.”

Shwartz Altshuler asserted that the legislation is “very problematic” and unenforceable. Can Israel legally force Facebook to entirely remove posts? “Certainly not,” she said. Facebook does not adopt local laws, she added, but rather selectively removes content based on its relationship with the political authorities.

According to Schwartz Altshuler, Israel already has laws on the books that enable it to prosecute incitement on social media, but it rarely chooses to do so. Israel is thus also guilty of failing to create “deterrence” online.

Erdan and Shaked’s bill “scares me,” she said, as it could compromise privacy and free speech. The “paradox of our privacy” is that individuals rely on global information-gathering companies to remain distinct from states. The proposed bill would strengthen the intersection of these companies and states — she noted the example of the recent Israel Air Force flyover for Google — which “frightens me because our privacy depends on it.”

“It would be very bad if Facebook would work in the service of the State of Israel.”

Who is responsible?

Following Erdan’s blistering accusations against Facebook, some Israeli pundits argued the public security minister was pinning the blame on the social network to deflect away from the failure of Israel’s own security agencies to locate terrorists who post online before carrying out attacks.

“Blaming Facebook (or any social network) for murderous terrorism is like saying the invention of writing is to blame because terrorists can convey written messages,” Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich said over the weekend. “That the invention of fire enabled violent tribes to burn their enemies. The telephone. The television. Electricity… the invention of the wheel (they come in cars!)”

But Schwartz Altshuler contends that Facebook’s algorithm, which highlights “engaging” content, inherently “does radicalize the discourse.”

IDF soldiers work with cyber-defense systems. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90/File)
IDF soldiers work with cyber-defense systems. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90/File)

Saying the “platform is neutral or apolitical is simply not true.” The algorithm “very much encourages the praise for terrorism,” she said, pointing to the Microsoft Twitter bot that was quickly made to echo neo-Nazi sentiments online after it was unleashed on social media.

The wave of lone wolf terrorism that has hit Israel enjoys a “tailwind” from Facebook’s algorithm, she believes.

That isn’t to say that Schwartz Altshuler views Facebook negatively. As with any new medium, there’s an unavoidable trial period.

“I always tell my students: In the generation when fire was discovered, many people walked around with burns on their hands.”

Yet Facebook’s failure to remove posts calling for violence against Israelis and Jews may fall under a different category, according to activists. Facebook’s “community standards” stipulate that terror groups are not allowed to have a presence on the site. “We also remove content that expresses support for groups that are involved in the violent or criminal behavior mentioned above. Supporting or praising leaders of those same organizations, or condoning their violent activities, is not allowed,” it says.

But Israel and pro-Israel activists have long complained that Facebook is not responsive enough to complaints against offensive posts.

According to Darshan-Leitner, there are “tens of thousands” of posts that explicitly urge the stabbing of Israeli Jews and have not been removed despite repeated requests. Shwartz Altshuler, drawing on testimonials, agreed Facebook’s removal policies were “not consistent,” but attributed this not to malice, but rather to the cultural ignorance of those Facebook employees whose job it is to delete posts.

Where is Facebook?

Facebook offers some measure of transparency — though not much — in its reports on government requests. Any specifics about the company’s dealings with governments, including Israel’s, are largely unavailable.

Jordana Cutler, a former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the chief of staff at Israel’s Washington, DC embassy, was recently hired by Facebook in London to serve in a policy position. The appointment was hailed by Erdan, though his spokesman said Cutler will not represent the State of Israel in her new role. Cutler, who has not yet started her new position, declined a request for interview through a Facebook PR representative.

Anti Facebook graffiti on a wall in Jerusalem (photo credit: Sophie Gordon / Flash90)
Anti Facebook graffiti on a wall in Jerusalem (photo credit: Sophie Gordon / Flash90)

Officials at Facebook Israel also declined a request for interview and would not comment on the record about any details regarding its ties to the government. The company offered this official statement:

“We work regularly with safety organizations and policy makers around the world, including Israel, to ensure that people know how to make a safe use of Facebook. There is no room for content that promotes violence, direct threats, terrorist or hate speeches on our platform. We have a set of community standards designed to help people understand what’s allowed on Facebook, and we call on people to use our report if they find content they believe violates these rules, so that we can examine each case and take quick action. We have regular dialogue with the government on these issues.”

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