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Minister floats Hebrew service centers for social networks to explain post deletions

Communications minister’s reported initiative comes as government advances controversial bid to enable censorship of posts deemed ‘incitement’

In this file photo from March 13, 2019, Facebook, Messenger and Instagram apps are displayed on an iPhone, in New York. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)
In this file photo from March 13, 2019, Facebook, Messenger and Instagram apps are displayed on an iPhone, in New York. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel is reportedly seeking to force social networks to set up service centers to provide explanations in Hebrew to users whose content is taken down or who are blocked from using their platforms.

According to a Monday report on Channel 13 news, the initiative s a sign that social media giants such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are now viewed as a platforms for of communication, and that they therefore come under the purview of Hendel’s ministry.

There was no statement from Hendel on the matter, however he did re-tweet the report from his official account in a tacit confirmation.

The reported proposal came as Israel weighs measures to rein in global social media companies, including Facebook, and possibly hold them more accountable for posts on their platform.

Hendel is a member of the right-wing New Hope party, whose leader, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, is pushing legislation to curtail “incitement” on social media. That bill passed a key hurdle Monday, receiving the required approval from the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, and will now advance to a second and third reading in the plenum.

It would allow courts to “remove from social networks content that presents a real threat to someone’s personal security, the security of the state or the security of the public.”

Communications Mןinister Yoaz Hendel in Modi’in, December 5, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Under the law, 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 on someone’s privacy, and posts that could harm someone’s dignity, as examples of criminal content shared on social media.

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

Under 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.

When the bill was first proposed, 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 to censor right-wing online content.

The approval of the bill drew swift condemnation from Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who tweeted, “Democracy is in jeopardy, Gideon Sa’ar passed the ‘Iranian’ law to censor social networks in Israel.”

Pro-democracy organizations have also expressed concerns that the bill could be used to crack down on activists.

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