The Removal of Criminally Offensive Content from the Internet bill – dubbed the “Facebook bill” – passed its first reading on Tuesday morning in the Knesset plenum. Social media platforms may be required by court orders to remove content deemed as criminal by the state.
The bill – which was drafted by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – would empower Israeli Administrative Courts to issue orders to remove online content at the request of state prosecutors.
“The Facebook bill was brought into the world as a result of last year’s wave of terror and the Palestinian incitement against the State of Israel which sparked it; That is the sole issue this bill seeks to address,” a representative of Shaked told The Jerusalem Post.
According to the bill, court orders would be able to target content that “the very posting of is a criminal offense, and whose public visibility has a real potential to put personal, public and national security at risk.” While both conditions need to be met for a court to issue the order, the state would be able to request these orders without giving social media platforms the ability to reply in court, based on classified evidence or evidence that would not be considered admissible in other cases.
Since the bill’s first draft, Erdan has backed down from his original aspiration of seeing content completely removed from the Internet on demand. The current bill only goes as far as to demand that posts are removed from visibility in Israel, as is Facebook’s existing policy on such cases.
“The bill includes various instructions and limitations in order to prevent damage to freedom of speech while also allowing the law enforcement agencies to work more efficiently on the matter,” the introduction to the bill stated.
The bill’s name has since been changed from the Removal of Terror-Inciting Content from Social Media bill to the Removal of Criminally Offensive Content from the Internet bill, in what some consider an appeasement of companies like Google, Twitter and mainly Facebook, which Erdan has personally attacked in the past.
Others, however, believe that the new name and the vague language of the bill itself make it too general and an actual risk to freedom of speech, despite what the ministers have claimed.
“The operative clauses of this bill would enable the removal of legitimate content, as they only include vague and general terms – such as ‘danger to the public or nation’ – that can be interpreted very broadly,” MeyTal Greiver-Schwartz, vice president of community relations and regulations at the Israel Internet Association, told Post
Greiver-Schwartz cited an incident in which Israeli-Beduin blogger Anas Abu Dabas posted satirical comment on Facebook regarding the wildfires that raged through Israel during December. Abu Dabas was arrested and interrogated by the police for three days on suspicion of incitement and his posts were immediately deleted by Facebook at the request of the police. While the police eventually released Abu Dabas with no criminal charges and concluded that the posts were satire, the posts remain blocked.
“While the ministers might talk to the media exclusively about incitement and terrorism prevention, the actual wording of the bill is broad enough to include posts that have nothing to do with incitement. The bill’s new name only emphasizes the bill’s attitude towards posts that are not considered incitement,” Greiver-Schwartz told the Post
“There will always be those who would come out against any blessed initiative. This bill seeks to tackle online incitement and any other forces interpretation of the bill is at the sole responsibility of the interpreted,” Shaked’s representative told the Post.
The Israel Internet Association also doubts the bill’s effectiveness in truly combating incitement and terrorism.
“The ‘Facebook bill’ is not an effective tool in combating online incitement. It will only block content from Israeli eyes and Israeli computers, while the rest of the world will still be exposed to it,” said Greiver-Schwartz.
Indeed, posts that Facebook already blocks at the request of the Israeli authorities or due to users’ complaint are still visible by users in the West Bank or users who bounce their IP address through proxies outside of Israel.
“If this bill was truly an effective tool in combating terrorism, then the small sacrifice would be worth it, but this bill isn’t that. The best way to achieve this goal is by cooperation with the social media giants, not through legislation and regulation,” Greiver-Schwartz said.
Throughout 2016, the Israeli authorities have submitted almost a thousand requests to remove posts from Facebook, 71% of which received positive responses and were removed by the social media giant. Shaked and Erdan were not satisfied with those statistics, however, and sought broader power to remove the content.
“At Facebook, nothing is more important than community safety, and we work hard to keep people safe. We have zero tolerance for terrorists, praise for their acts and incitement to real-world violence. We work aggressively to remove it from our platform as soon as we become aware of it,” a representative of Facebook in Israel said, following the bill’s approval by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation last month.
“Facebook hopes to continue a constructive dialogue with the Israeli government and other stakeholders. We hope that this will include careful consideration of the implications of this bill for Israeli democracy, freedom of speech, the open Internet and the dynamism of the Israeli Internet sector,” the representative added.
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