Public security minister orders progress on ‘Facebook incitement bill’

Erdan instructs Knesset committee to advance leaner version of legislation, which was frozen by PM after Times of Israel found it went too far

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Gilad Erdan speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv in 2018. (Roy Alima/Flash90)
Gilad Erdan speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv in 2018. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan instructed the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday to move ahead with a bill aimed at allowing the courts to force Facebook and other social media sites to remove certain content.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the so-called “Facebook incitement bill” removed from the Knesset docket in July after The Times of Israel found that the draft law went drastically further than was previously understood, even by the lawmakers pushing for it.

Netanyahu said at the time that the bill — put forward by Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked — could be interpreted to grant powers so broad as to threaten freedom of speech.

The bill aims to empower the courts to issue an order for the removal of online content that constitutes a criminal offense or that could harm an individual’s or the country’s security.

Nissan Slomiansky attends a session of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, which he chairs, in the Knesset on January 16, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a letter Monday, leaked to the Calcalist business daily, Erdan urged Law and Justice Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky (Jewish Home) to advance a leaner version of the proposed legislation, which would target content that could harm the security of an individual or the state but would drop mention of content that could harm the country’s economy or essential infrastructure.

As the committee had already approved the bill for second and third readings in the Knesset before the prime minister stepped in, it could be passed in around a week, Erdan said.

If passed, the law will apply both to social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and to search engines such as Google.

In his letter, Erdan cited the extensive use the Hamas terror organization has made of Facebook and Twitter to justify Palestinians’ actions following a botched IDF operation in the Gazan city of Khan Younis last month, in which one Israeli officer and seven Palestinians were killed. That operation ignited a massive round of rocket fire from the Strip into Israel, which killed one Palestinian man in Ashkelon and wounded more than 100 Israelis, and heavy retaliatory Israeli strikes.

“During recent days, we have witnessed a broad awareness-raising campaign undertaken by Hamas in response to IDF activity in the Gaza Strip,” Erdan wrote.

Fire and smoke billow following Israeli air strikes on Hamas infrastructure in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, near the border with Egypt, on November 12, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

“The Facebook and Twitter social networks were harnessed for this campaign.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the use of the law would have helped the state authorities and security bodies to deal better with the [Hamas online] campaign.”

The precise nature of the government’s involvement with what it regards as offensive social network content remains unclear.

In October, the Knesset Science and Technology committee was told that the national cyber unit within the Prime Minister’s Office had asked Facebook to close thousands of accounts used to spread false information relating to local elections that were held countrywide on October 30.

Erez Tidhar, head of the Directorate’s personal protection unit, at the Knesset Science and Technology committee, October 15, 2018. (Screenshot)

Erez Tidhar, the head of the unit’s personal protection unit, confirmed that the accounts removed were among 583 million that Facebook recently said it had shut down in the first quarter of this year due to their potential dissemination of “fake news.”

Tidhar acknowledged that his unit, which he said acts as a channel for government complaints, had been involved in limiting cyberattacks on all platforms for some time, and said that cooperation with Facebook had resulted in the company removing “thousands of fictitious accounts” ahead of the municipal elections and “a lot of avatars [social media profiles] created to try to change public opinion and to manipulate information.”

But he said the unit did not get involved in content — it just looked for “patterns.”

Tidhar refused requests by MKs present to detail the matter any further, raising concerns about the unit’s lack of transparency and the potential for political manipulation. After the committee hearing, the unit declined to release any information about the activities it had discovered.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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