Days after it was revealed that the Shin Bet security agency has intelligence proving that a foreign country intends to influence the April election via online meddling, the Likud party said on Tuesday that it would block proposed measures to prevent such voter manipulation and similar attempts by Israeli internet operatives.
Responding to a plea from the Central Elections Committee chairman, Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer, Likud party pushed back against all efforts to apply at least basic transparency standards on online campaigning. That rejection, charged an Israeli expert on internet legislation and election manipulation, appears to signal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party plans to make use of dubious methods that gained prominence in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Writing to Melcer, Likud chief legal adviser Avi Halevy said the party would not agree to pass legislation widening current election propaganda laws to include online content, and would refuse to sign an accord between all parties committing to clearly claim authorship of their online campaign materials.
Following a petition calling to immediately implement measures to prevent manipulation and “fake news,” Melcer had asked that Likud lift its opposition to a bill that would give legal teeth to the Central Elections Committee, the body in charge of managing the national ballot, in order to prevent online meddling that “could pose a direct threat to the Israel’s democracy.”
“In our opinion the Elections Law should be amended to adapt it to the changing reality, but the authority to do so is devoted exclusively to the Knesset,” Halevy wrote on behalf of the party and the prime minister. But, he added, “the need to consider in depth the proposals and their consequences means that we cannot complete the legislative work before the upcoming elections.”
Current protection from fake news and disinformation mainly comes from the Elections Law (Propaganda Methods) of 1959, which was written before the advent of the internet and primarily deals with advertising on billboards, radio, planes and boats. Amendments since then have extended the law to TV, regional radio stations and published election surveys, but not to the internet.
A bill to extend the election propaganda law to online content and to give the Central Elections Committee the legal power to prevent online manipulation is currently being held up in Knesset committee by the Likud party, with sources with direct knowledge of the legislative process telling The Times of Israel that Netanyahu personally ordered that it be shelved.
The bill — which requires only one more plenary vote, that could take place before the elections, to become law — would specifically clamp down on fake news by compelling the authors of any paid political content, including comments, to identify themselves publicly. This amendment would apply both to the internet and to more traditional campaign materials, such as posters.
In lieu of passing the law, Melcer said during a Sunday hearing that parties should agree to an ad hoc accord to treat anonymous paid online campaigning as a breach of a specific clause of the Election Law and therefore subject themselves to fines. Every current party in the Knesset accepted the idea, accept for Likud.
Halevy wrote on Tuesday that the party would not accept “replacing the Knesset with any such agreement between different factions,” openly raising fears that such an accord could leave the party open to criminal charges.
“The use of the internet was very significant in the last election campaign and the parties were not required to legislate or sign a treaty with criminal implications,” he said. “There is no reason to conduct this election in any other way.”
Since the 2015 national ballot, however, concerns about online interference in polls have taken center stage on a global scale following allegations of Russian meddling in the US presidential elections, which saw the hacking of Democratic Party emails and the use of Facebook to manipulate information.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert on technology policy at the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute and a cosignatory to the petition, described the Likud decision as “inexplicable” and said the only explanation was that “they want to use these tools to manipulate voters.”
Melcer, she explained, now has three options.
The “most extreme ruling,” Shwartz Altshuler said, would be for the judge to say that the current law does in fact apply to the internet, given that it did not exist when the legislation was first written, forcing parties to admit ownership of online materials.
Alternatively, he could push ahead with an agreement between parties and rule that even without across-the-board commitment, it still applies to all.
Since both decisions, however, would be met with accusations of judicial activism and could even face a High Court petition from Likud to cancel it, Melcer may be inclined to leave the issue to be resolved by individual rulings on a case-by-case basis in response to future petitions to the committee.
On Sunday, Shwartz Altshuler urged Melcer not to take the decision lightly.
“We are dealing with manipulation in breadth and depth that we have never seen before,” she warned at a hearing on the topic. “We know that there are legal difficulties, but there is an immediate need in order to protect our elections and our democracy.”