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Netanyahu: Censorship; danger to democracy & free expression

Knesset advances bill censoring ‘criminal’ social media posts

Proposed law, allowing courts to remove content that incites violence or ‘endangers mental health,’ is met with pushback from right-wing leaders, who claim it will crimp speech

Facebook's logo is displayed next to a screen showing that the Facebook website is down, on October 4, 2021, in San Anselmo, California. (JUSTIN SULLIVAN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
Facebook's logo is displayed next to a screen showing that the Facebook website is down, on October 4, 2021, in San Anselmo, California. (JUSTIN SULLIVAN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Lawmakers on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow Israeli authorities to remove certain posts supporting illegal activities from social media sites, angering right-wing opposition parties who claimed it would be used to censor them.

The bill — which passed 58 to 46 — must still go through three more plenary votes and committee markup.

Under the proposal, a judge would be able to issue an order requiring a content publisher, such as Facebook or TikTok, to remove posts from its website, if law enforcement agencies are convinced that a criminal offense has been committed through the publication of the content.

The bill’s explanatory text lists sexual offenses in online postings, posts infringing one’s privacy, and posts that could harm one’s dignity, as examples of criminal content shared on social media.

“We have recently been exposed to the fact that social networks themselves consciously cooperate with offenses and damages caused in their ‘home field,’ due to economic considerations and competition with other networks,” the explanatory memorandum reads.

While online incitement is already illegal, the bill would give authorities more power to have social media posts removed by force.

The bill was brought forward by Meir Yitzhak Halevi, an MK from Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, who said lawmakers needed to take action to tamp down the promulgation of violent or illicit content online, calling it the most difficult social issue faced by Israeli society today.

He said social media networks normally had a legitimate function, but the situation today represented “a loss of control and complete chaos.”

Leaders of several right-wing opposition parties criticized the measure as a blow to freedom of speech, claiming that a clause that would allow courts to remove content “endangering mental health,” could be exploited to be used against them, and censor right-wing online content.

“The law brought here by the predatory coalition is a great danger to democracy and freedom of expression. The Bennett-Lapid government, together with Sa’ar, is in fact seeking to censor social networks,” opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said.

As the law was debated in the Knesset, Netanyahu pounded his desk and called it “absurd and dangerous.”

In response to Netanyahu’s objections, the New Hope party tweeted, “It is interesting why the leader of the opposition is so worried about a law that prevents incitement and the distribution of fake news.”

In the proposed bill, complaints about a particular social media post would be filed with the state prosecutor, and with approval from the Attorney General’s Office, would be sent to a district court within 24 hours for judgment.

Earlier this year, Netanyahu reportedly proposed blacking out social media sites, such as TikTok, during a period of unrest and rioting in mixed Jewish-Arab cities.

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