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Israeli committee to weigh regulations for social networks, emerging tech

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar says gap between existing legislation and tech advancements only widening, will seek to formulate effective measures to protect privacy, economy

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Startups and Business editor and reporter.

A Facebook App logo displayed on a smartphone in Los Angeles, March 1, 2021. (Chris Delmas/AFP/File)
A Facebook App logo displayed on a smartphone in Los Angeles, March 1, 2021. (Chris Delmas/AFP/File)

Israeli Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar has set up a special committee headed by the Justice Ministry’s director-general, Eran Davidi, that will be tasked with making regulatory recommendations vis-a-vis social media networks, as well as emerging technologies in Israel and abroad.

Members of the committee include representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Finance Ministry, the Communications Ministry, the Economy and Industry Ministry, the Israeli Innovation Authority, as well as various offices within the Justice Ministry, including the Office of the State Attorney’s Cyber Unit and the Privacy Protection Authority.

In a letter dated October 13, 2021, and first cited by Ynet, Sa’ar wrote that the committee would be charged with “formulating measures and actions to bridge the ever-widening gap between technological developments and existing regulatory and legal arrangements in Israel, and to address the negative social influences of various phenomena inherent in this gap.”

This development comes as Facebook was back in the headlines in recent weeks following a high-profile whistleblower testimony that shed new light on the company’s questionable practices, and a six-hour global outage at Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp that raised the ire of governments and regulators across the world. The whistleblower, Frances Hauge told Congress this month that Facebook prioritizes profits over the public good, fuels division, harms children, and must be regulated, sparking yet another conversation about the social media company and its unregulated global reach.

In an interview last week, Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and head of its Democracy in the Information Age program, told The Times of Israel that although regulation will take time, it is inevitable given Facebook’s immense power.

In his letter on Wednesday, Sa’ar cited advanced developments in emerging new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud technologies, blockchain and digital currencies, virtual reality (VR), and IoT (the internet of things), and said that the “widening gap between law and technology means that the interests of the state, its economy, and individual rights may be harmed and irreversibly damaged, as long as they don’t adapt the legal and regulatory arrangements to the ever-changing reality.”

The justice minister called on the new committee to formulate recommendations regarding legislation related to social networks, the trade of personal data, and artificial intelligence.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar speaks at a conference in southern Israel on July 22, 2021. (Flash90)

He wrote that the negative aspects of social media networks — online incitement, misinformation, antisemitism, terrorism, the manipulation of democratic systems, and the effects on children and teens — were “far-reaching” and “clearer by the day,” while the regulatory frameworks on these companies’ activities were “almost non-existent.”

Personal data, meanwhile, was “the new fuel” and the “phenomenon whereby different entities, chiefly international social media companies, collect data on each and every one of us, process it, trade it and use it for their needs, presents significant threats and challenges alongside the possibilities and new services they offer for the public good,” the letter read.

While artificial intelligence serves as the base for “revolutionary new technology in our time,” there remain important questions about the threat to privacy rights.” Sa’ar pointed to regulations in the Western world such as The Artificial Intelligence Act, and said that no such measures were ever formed in Israel “on this important industry.”

The committee will “probe the appropriate balance between encouraging innovation and technological developments in which Israel excels, and the need for smart, measured regulation that will minimize the risks and the negative expressions,” Sa’ar wrote. Committee members will hear from local and global experts, the relevant tech companies, both Israeli and foreign, non-governmental organizations, and the public.

The justice minister said he intends to work to “strengthen international cooperation in order to promote effective regulation of the major technology companies.”

Separately, Channel 12 reported last week that Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel was forming a team of Israeli experts who would examine measures to rein in global social media companies and possibly seek to hold Facebook legally accountable for posts on its platform. The team would also seek to compel Facebook to reveal its policies on censorship, banning, and how posts are placed in its algorithm.

Currently, when content or users are removed from the platform, Facebook does not have to provide details explaining the move.

MK Yoaz Hendel at a meeting of the Arrangements Committee in the Knesset, on June 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

The proposed measures also include having social media giants become liable for incitement or libel posted on their platforms, which would be practically unprecedented worldwide, according to the report. Facebook and other social media sites are currently not legally liable for untrue or harmful content that appears on their platforms, unlike newspapers and other traditional publishers.

Facebook has come under fire in recent years for not adequately stemming hate speech, incitement and misinformation. But Facebook does not usually ban misinformation outright on its platform, instead adding fact-checks by outside parties to debunked claims. The two exceptions have been around elections and COVID-19.

According to the report, officials will attempt to get Facebook representatives to hold discussions with them to find a solution, before any move ahead with the proposed moves. The idea would be to urge Facebook to take steps of its own to ensure greater transparency and responsibility in its operations, or face government-imposed measures.

The planned measures, which are to be finalized within three months by Hendel’s task force, could apply to all social media sites, the report said.

Agencies and TOI staff contributed to this report.

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