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Ministers advance online censorship bill, drawing Netanyahu’s ire

Legislation pushed by justice minister would give authorities more power to have social media posts removed if they are deemed ‘incitement’

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar speaks during a plenum session in the Knesset on December 15, 2021. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar speaks during a plenum session in the Knesset on December 15, 2021. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

A bill promoted by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar that seeks to curtail “incitement” on social media passed a key hurdle Monday, receiving the required approval from the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

The bill 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.”

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.”

In response, Sa’ar tweeted, “Bibi, go drink cold water… Everyone knows that you are protecting criminality and incitement online and not democracy.”

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.

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 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.

The bill was originally brought forward by Meir Yitzhak Halevi, an MK from 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 challenging social issue faced by Israeli society today.

During its first reading, the bill passed 58 to 46.

The proposal of the bill comes at a time when Israel is weighing measures to rein in global social media companies, including Facebook, and possibly hold them accountable for posts on their platform.

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