Experts call law 'a serious threat to freedom of speech'

Law clamping down on Facebook ‘incitement’ okayed for final vote

Critics say legislation, meant to protect national security, can be used to limit freedom of expression ‘against almost anything you can imagine’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

This file photo taken on November 21, 2016, shows Facebook logos pictured on the screens of a smartphone (R), and a laptop computer, in central London. (AFP)
This file photo taken on November 21, 2016, shows Facebook logos pictured on the screens of a smartphone (R), and a laptop computer, in central London. (AFP)

A bill that would allow the state to seek court orders to force Facebook and other social media sites to remove certain content based on police recommendations was given the go-ahead for a final Knesset vote on Sunday.

The legislation, which was approved by the parliament’s Law, Constitution and Justice Committee, allows Israeli authorities to block posts from any website featuring user-generated content, including Google, Twitter and Facebook, from being seen by Israeli viewers. That would include unilaterally ordering the blocking of content from private blogs and from blog platforms on news websites, such as The Times of Israel’s The Blogs section.

While the initial proposal was aimed at tackling terror incitement on social media, the version of the bill authorized for final vote allows for censorship of any post that violates any section of Israel’s penal code.

The government, however, says the bill will only be invoked in cases of suspected incitement, where there is a real possibility that the material in question endangers the public or national security.

The legislation was first proposed by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked last July, two weeks after the two met with Facebook officials in Jerusalem.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Erdan tweeted on Sunday that he was proud of the legislation, but cautioned that Israel must “strive to place full responsibility on internet companies to ‘clean’ their platforms themselves, and not wait for the police to monitor and then approach them.”

Israel has long accused Facebook of facilitating Palestinian hatred toward Israelis, especially following a wave of hundreds of attacks that began in October 2015, which security services said was fueled by online incitement.

Facebook has in the past agreed to remove some pages brought to its attention by Israel for spreading alleged Palestinian incitement.

However, the social media giant claims that it already provides governments with the ability to block content.

“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.

Erdan says European countries such as France and Germany already have similar laws in place, and Facebook complies with them.

Committee chairman MK Nissan Slomiansky of the Jewish Home party said that the bill strikes a balance between public safety and freedom of expression, Calcalist reported.

But MK Revital Swid of the opposition Zionist Union raised concerns that the legislation could be used in cases not relating to incitement to terror.

MK Revital Swid (Zionist Union) arrives at a meeting of the rabbinical judges appointments committee in Jerusalem, May 2, 2016. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

“It goes too far. I appeal to you, Justice Ministry and Public Security Ministry, be careful,” said Swid. “Be careful that this does not harm freedom of speech or the right to protest.”

Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of The Israel Democracy Institute told the Times of Israel that allowing cases to be heard unilaterally before a court, without criminal proceedings and the proper submission of evidence, was not the way a democracy should function.

The bill was “one of the most severe infringements of freedom of expression passed by the current Knesset,” Shwartz Altshuler said in a Israel Democracy Institute conference call.

She warned that the bill allows for wide censorship against “almost anything you can imagine.” That could include “calling for a rebellion, incitement to racism, telling people not to join the army, inciting people not to pay taxes, incitement against public officials.”

“That is the most extreme application of such a law in the whole of the democratic world,” Alshuler said.

The bill also provides the Justice Ministry with “almost unprecedented” freedom to enforce the law without due process.

If authorities want to remove content from Facebook or other hosting sites, they have no requirement to prove their case against a defendant and instead need only to face a closed administrative hearing before a judge. In addition, they will be able to obtain a gag order on any information about the decision, preventing the public from knowing that any censorship even took place, according to Altshuler.

“This law is a serious threat to freedom of information and freedom of speech in Israel,” she said.

The legislation, which applies to all publishers and content providers, including Google and Twitter, is expected to have its second and third readings in the Knesset plenum later this week.

read more: