Police cyber crime unit.
(photo credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
The Justice Ministry’s Cybercrimes Department, which was established two years ago to combat a rise in online incitement, does not keep any record of the cases it pursues with Google and Facebook.
“As a rule we do not keep the content we work to have removed,” the ministry said on Thursday in a written response to a query from The Jerusalem Post. No explanation for the lack of record keeping was given, but the Arab rights group Adalah, which received a similar response to a request to examine the 2,241 cases the department says it pursued in 2016, said the refusal pointed to secrecy and a lack of transparency and accountability in the government body, which it also charges is acting “without any legal authority.”
It added that removals by Facebook and Google after Israeli requests included explicit and concrete calls for violence, such as calls for carrying out stabbings, arson or car rammings. Pages of declared terrorist organizations were also the subject of removal efforts. “Less explicit” violent content or criticisms of policies or IDF actions or advocacy of BDS are not targeted, the ministry said.
Adalah attorney Fady Khoury wrote last month in a letter to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit that the department should be closed because its activities are illegal. Khoury told the Post that “approaching Facebook and asking or demanding that it remove content is illegal because there is no legal authority that allows it to do so. Any violation of the law by a citizen cannot automatically be the subject of censorship unless there’s a legal authority to do that.”
He said there is currently no law on the books mandating the removal efforts by the department.
“In liberal democracies there is one big distinction between a private citizen and the authorities,” Khoury said. “A private citizen is entitled to do anything not prohibited by law.
Authorities are able to do only things the law allows them to do. Here we have a whole new unit that is working outside the law.”
The ministry responded that “the cybercrimes department acts with the different Internet companies and Internet service providers mainly on a voluntary basis. Most Internet companies understand today that unlawful publications on their platform is against their own interest and thus each company forms its own terms of service regarding publications that the company itself have decided that it does not wish to be on its platform. The cybercrimes department has learned these terms of services and acts in cases where the Israeli law and terms of service are similar.”
The ministry said a law named the Powers to Prevent Online Offenses Act will go into effect next month allowing the department’s attorney to request the issue of a warrant demanding website blocking if there are sufficient grounds that the website is operated by a terror organization.
The ministry also said the department upholds freedom of expression. “The great importance of freedom of expression is always on the department’s agenda.
Nonetheless freedom of expression was never the freedom to commit criminal offenses without any consequences.
The Internet is not (and should not be) a safe haven from sanctions.”
When the Knesset has decided that a certain expression should not be allowed by law, “our mission is to make sure the norm applies to the Internet as well,” the justice ministry said.
Gabriel Siboni, director of the cyber warfare program at the Institute for National Security Studies, dismissed Adalah’s criticisms of the department, saying combating cyber incitement and use of the Internet by terrorists is essential to saving lives and that there is a need for Israel to greatly expand its efforts in this regard and set up a new unit to fight “cognitive warfare.”
“I don’t agree with this kind of criticism,” he said.
“What I do agree with is that we need to fight terror in all the good ways and if there is a legal problem they should solve it.”
He said the threat will only increase in the future. “With the advance of technology its use by terrorists increases. The size of the incitement will only get worse.”
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