MKs water down anti-porn bill amid privacy concerns
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MKs water down anti-porn bill amid privacy concerns

Amended version no longer requires internet service providers to automatically filter content; companies will instead be incentivized to market content-control software

Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli speaks during a Knesset plenary session on July 26, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli speaks during a Knesset plenary session on July 26, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A bill that would force internet service providers in Israel to automatically censor pornographic sites was amended on Friday under heavy criticism from lawmakers over privacy concerns.

The new version of the legislation, sponsored by Likud MK Miki Zohar and Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, will require internet service providers to ask users to what extent they wish to block pornographic content, if at all, the Haaretz daily reported.

The earlier version of the bill that was unanimously approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation in late October, required internet service providers to block pornographic content by default and only lift site filtering at the user’s request.

Under the amended legislation, internet users will be allowed to opt out of the automatic site filtering. Service providers will only be obligated to block access to the pornographic sites by default if the user does not indicate their preference. The law stipulates that users can change their preferences with their internet provider at any point.

Users who have requested to opt out of accessing the sites will be asked by their service provider every three months if they have changed their minds, according to Haaretz.

Likud MK Miki Zohar at an Interior Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, February 20, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The bill, which seeks to minimize the exposure of minors to potentially harmful internet content, will incentivize internet companies to actively market existing website blocking software to families. Internet service providers will receive NIS 0.50 ($0.13 cents) for every subscriber who opts to block the offensive sites.

In addition, the companies will be legally required to delete all data related to their users’ surfing habits, to prevent creating de facto — and easily leaked — “black lists” of pornography consumers.

On Thursday, several Knesset members announced they had withdrawn their signatures from the bill, including the Zionist Union’s Eitan Cabel, Yesh Atid’s Aliza Lavi, and Kulanu MKs Merav Ben-Ari and Roy Folkman, Haaretz reported.

Currently, Israeli internet service providers are required to offer their users content-filtering systems free of charge. Though current regulations stipulate the providers advertise their filtering services, lawmakers claim many parents remain unaware of the option.

For nearly a decade, various lawmakers have been trying to advance legislation to prevent children from viewing inappropriate content on the internet. Previous bills have failed to make headway.

Critics say that in addition to limiting freedom of information, censoring pornographic content would likely block access to unrelated content, such as information on breast cancer and other educational material. In addition, critics say that requiring users to specifically request access to pornography could be a violation of privacy.

In October, after being questioned about privacy concerns, Moalem-Refaeli said she believed that people have the right to view whatever legal content they desire online.

“As parliamentarians and public leaders, we must put up road signs that say ‘This is how we think society should behave,’” Moalem said. “The average age at which children are exposed to pornographic sites is 8. I don’t think it is right for us to leave things like that.”

Moalem said that ensuring non-pornographic states are not filtered by accident would be a challenge to overcome as the bill makes its way through the Knesset.

“I am not interested in blocking a campaign for breast cancer awareness, as a woman and a survivor of breast cancer,” she said. “That is not what we are talking about. But during the process of legislation it will become clear what we are talking about.”

Sites that contain both adult-oriented and family-suitable material also present difficulties to censoring systems, and while Israeli law could require local websites to clearly tag content in a manner that assists the filters, Moalem conceded that “as an Israeli lawmaker, I have no influence on a site that isn’t Israeli.

“In the balance between the private individual and society we take a wide view. We are calling to create a society that protects itself from things for which we pay a heavy price. A person who is interested in these sites needs to understand that at the moment Israel is in a process, that he is an individual but part of a whole society.”

The bill places responsibility upon the communication minister — a position currently held by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — to set out censorship guidelines for service providers.

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