Netanyahu raises red flag on anti-porn bill amid web privacy concerns
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Netanyahu raises red flag on anti-porn bill amid web privacy concerns

PM says controversial legislation that could force internet providers to automatically censor pornographic sites raises serious questions about online regulation

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, December 9, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, December 9, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke out Sunday against a coalition bill that could force internet service providers in Israel to automatically censor pornographic sites, which has come under heavy criticism over privacy concerns.

“We do not want children to be exposed to offensive content, but my concern is that the internet, a space where there is [currently] no government regulation, will become regulated,” Netanyahu told a weekly meeting of Likud ministers.

“Who determines what content is permitted and what content is prohibited? Who will determine the interpretations?” he asked. “You have to be very careful when a regulator enters this space.”

The initial version of the bill, sponsored by Likud MK Miki Zohar and Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, and unanimously approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation in late October, would require internet service providers to block pornographic content by default and only lift site filtering at a user’s request.

An amended version of the legislation would require internet service providers to ask users to what extent they wish to block pornographic content, if at all, but would still block access by default if the user does not indicate a preference.

Netanyahu said his concerns over the anti-pornography bill were similar to those he had with a bill aimed at allowing the courts to force Facebook and other social media sites to remove certain content, which he blocked in July citing a threat to freedom of speech.

He said he would be meeting with Zohar “to study the law and see how this concern can be overcome.” The bill is currently set to face a key Knesset plenary vote this week.

Zohar said in response that “the final version of the bill is excellent and I am sure that the prime minister will support it.”

Dismissing privacy concerns, Zohar said that the goal of the legislation was “only to protect minors and to allow the adult to decide for himself… There is nothing more appropriate for the sake of the children of Israel and ensuring the future of our society in everything related to the prevention of sexual harassment and the objectification of women.”

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, would incentivize internet companies to actively market existing website blocking software to families. Internet service providers would receive NIS 0.50 ($0.13 cents) for every subscriber who opts to block the offensive sites.

In addition, the companies would 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 Lavie, 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 that 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, the censoring of 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.

Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli during a Knesset committee meeting, August 16, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“As parliamentarians and public leaders, we must put up road signs that say ‘This is how we think society should behave,’” Moalem-Refaeli 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 that 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,” she said. “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 Netanyahu — to set out censorship guidelines for service providers.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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