Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said Sunday that a task force set up in March 2016 to combat online hate and incitement has managed to take down the majority of the 3,500 pages it found with offensive content to date, and that average reaction time to deal with these posts was less than 24 hours.
The task force was set up following a wave of hundreds of attacks that began in October 2015, which security services said was fueled by online incitement.
“Very soon it was discovered that in seven out of 10 cases, the terrorists were influenced by incitement for violence and terror to which they were exposed in social media and the internet,” Shaked said at a conference during Israel Cyber Week. “The link between incitement and terror is a new and dangerous phenomenon with strategic significance.”
The unraveling of events in which Israel came to be attacked from within “made us feel vulnerable. We thought maybe we should bring down the internet in the whole area. We thought the physical forces, army, police cannot deal with this virtual penetration of our sovereignty.”
This new reality required a new way of thinking and operating, she said and the legal system “acted very fast,” against its traditional “DNA, and suggesting new solutions.”
Among these was the new task force, which identified offending posts and obtained court orders to take them down; increased collaboration with social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube to be more active in restraining and taking down hate and incitement posts; and the proposal of new laws.
In December, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation advanced the so-called Facebook bill, which would allow the state to seek court orders to force the social media site to remove certain content based on police recommendations.
The government says the bill will only be invoked in cases of suspected incitement, when there is a real possibility that the material in question endangers the public or national security.
Shaked said that an additional bill aims to block access to content that supports terror. The bill is in advanced stages of legislation, she said. In addition, Shaked said Israel plans to host an international conference to be attended by justice ministers to discuss the matter. She did not provide further details.
At the conference on Sunday, Edna Arbel, a former Supreme Court judge who is heading a committee that investigates legal solutions to combat internet incitement and hate speech, said the legal system must be able to adapt to new realities and challenges. She said she supports “in principle” the creation of additional tools to fight the online threat, but a balance must be struck with freedom of expression and preservation of privacy.
Shai Nitzan, the state prosecutor, called the internet the “new city square,” but with the crucial difference that speakers on the internet can be anonymous and reach thousands and millions of people around the world.
Since the end of 201 Israel has indicted some 250 people for incitement, of which some 25 indictments were this year, he said.
Increased policing by governments
Even so, Tehila Shwartz Altshuler, the head of media reform and open government projects at the Israel Democracy Institute, warned against overreaction and the curbing of civil liberties. Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are not just high-tech companies but also media firms and they should be regulated as such. Cooperation is the best way to get results, she said, without infringing on privacy and freedom of speech rights.
The main problem, however, is that globally and also in Israel “governments are trying to use technology to increase their policing of citizens,”” she warned, including the proposed Facebook law, the biometric database that is being set up, and widespread use of online surveillance methods.
Noa Elefant-Loffler, senior public policy manager at Google Israel, said that Google and YouTube are committed to being part of the solution and have been working to curb incitement and hate speech for a number of years.
The main problem, however, she said, is context. “Context is king,” she said, “No machine can understand context yet,” so Google employs teams of people to take context into account regarding posts that are flagged as offensive or dangerous.
Google pledges to be even more aggressive in its policies against incitement, she said, and recently announced a series of steps in this direction. These include devoting more resources to machine learning capabilities that will flag posts for review; increasing the number of employees devoted to the subject; and restricting the reach of content that is borderline, in which there is no clear violation of Google’s community code — this content will carry no ads or comments and will not be able to be recommended or shared by others.
“This will help limit access to these posts,” she said. But, “there is no magic solution.”