The last few years have changed the global landscape for Meta-Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube and other social media and technology giants. They still have power and influence beyond what most multinational corporations could have only dreamed of in the past; but the European Union, the US and others have moved to increase oversight and regulation of these huge companies.
How will Israel now confront them?
According to a mix of sources from the government, Meta, technology experts and a study of global trends, much of the future is still up in the air.
Social media’s power is being challenged as never before. In February, Meta threatened to pull out of Europe due to new requirements regarding transnational data centers. The company quickly qualified the threat when various European officials called their bluff.
This was different from when social media giants temporarily cut off Australia from their platforms to express anger with certain oversight and regulatory changes.
General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) privacy rules have restrained social media in the EU for the last few years. As a result, more nations now believe they can confront online powerhouses.
If one thing is certain, it is that the mid-February public hearing – when Meta and Google officials were questioned by Israeli government officials led by the Justice Ministry but also including the Communications Ministry and other officials – told us very little.
While the hearing seemed almost like a friendly, getting-to-know-you icebreaker, some documents and correspondence between the sides acquired by The Jerusalem Post make it clear that serious policy changes are under consideration.
Let’s first look at the mid-February hearing, which was the public’s primary introduction to the relationship.
Curiously, no officials asked about famous Meta whistle-blower Frances Haugen, the Cambridge Analytica controversy, or American-Israeli journalist Sheera Frankel’s exposé An Ugly Truth.
Despite this seemingly glaring oversight, government sources said that behind the scenes, there is a far more aggressive process going on.
What is happening at the public hearings?
According to a highly detailed questionnaire that the government demanded all of the social media giants answer, the public hearings were intended as an add-on to maximize the ability of the public to follow and become aware of the issue, without getting into the nitty-gritty details.
In addition, Israeli officials are critical of the US Congress hearing process that they say produces big media headlines when a member of Congress gives a dramatic speech, but often leads to little real engagement between the sides or to changes in policy.
Rather, Israeli officials are in touch with their counterparts in democracies across the globe. They are fully aware of some of the controversies connected with Meta in the US and are focused on concrete policy changes, some of which they may simply push through regardless of Meta’s views.
In mid-February, Justice Ministry Director-General Eran Davidi pressed Meta and Google on whether they were doing enough to mitigate harmful content.
Davidi listed a variety of examples of harmful content, from incitement to fictitious accounts (where the true operator is different from the one the fake profile presents) to bots (accounts operated by computers).
The representatives who addressed Davidi and officials from the Foreign and Communications ministries and others included: Meta’s director of content policy Kaitlin Sullivan (virtually from North America), Meta Israel representative Jordana Cutler, Google global director of information policy and government affairs Derek Slater, and Google Israel representative Yehuda Ben Yaakov.
Davidi said the problem “is not a theoretical or academic problem. It is very practical [in causing] harm to kids. Every family in Israel is worried.”
The director-general said his committee “does not want to harm free speech or creativity,” but wants to achieve real changes and not just issue dry reports to be ignored.
In answering Davidi’s question about Meta’s responsibility for its content, Sullivan supported regulation, noting that the company has invested $4 billion and 40,000 employees to work on harmful content.
What will Israel's government do?
ONE OF the main issues is whether the government will impose a new obligatory standard on Meta and others to remove harmful content, and how such a standard would be interpreted.
At the mid-February hearing, Cutler gave a positive review of Meta’s interactions with Israeli officials to limit Holocaust denial.
In some past reports, Meta has said its removes in the high 90% of posts that are reported by Israeli cyber officials as facilitating terrorism, crime or pedophilia.
Sullivan’s support for government regulation was an authentic statement about Meta’s updated position on being regulated in Israel, even if in the past it had opposed such efforts.
A March 31 government questionnaire about potentially adopting an obligatory “harmful content” standard for removal of content from social media platforms was addressed to Meta. The company responded saying strong democracies that have defined content required to be removed have done so in a “transparent process that takes into account various social interests and gives appropriate respect to freedom of speech and oversight by an objective legal system.”
It said legal “brakes and judicial balancing help reduce the probability that arbitrary limits will be placed on legitimate speech. Laws that limit speech are usually implemented by law enforcement officials and the courts,” which ensure due process and a fair hearing.
At the same time, Meta said that using a broad term like “harmful content” as a standard for requiring content removal “has its own drawbacks. Legislative processes take time, and the result of the process is usually a law that lasts for years.”
Meta said that its experience with addressing problematic content has shown that definitions and the process “must be as dynamic as possible,” including “being updated by real-world incidents and social and cultural change.”
What does it mean?
What does this all mean in the dialogue or potential confrontation between Meta and the government? It means that both sides' support for regulation is only the opening shot in a potential grand battle over how to interpret and enforce regulations.
Better translated: how much more money will Meta have to spend to keep up with Israeli regulations? How much new liability will it be exposed to? And how much will cooperating with Israel get the company in trouble with various anti-Israel circles (who are already mad when Meta takes down some anti-Israel posts as incitement)?
The huge issue of privacy was not even delved into at the mid-February hearing.
When Privacy Authority Director Gilad Simama asked what Meta’s policy was regarding information sharing with third parties and protection of user privacy, Sullivan said a different official would need to answer such questions separately.
Both government and Meta sources indicated that the privacy issue was not supposed to be the centerpiece of that particular hearing, and that other hearings and interactions were planned.
Regarding privacy, Meta might be ready to agree to Israel adopting its own version of the EU’s GDPR. At the same time, it is concerned about nixing or defining any potential criminal liability for its employees in a reasonable way.
Other issues from Meta’s view include allegations that some members of the government’s committees examining these issues have shown prior public bias against it and other social media companies. They also feel that the efforts of multiple committees and the Justice and Communications ministries appear to be poorly coordinated.
Government officials reject conflict-of-interest allegations as artificial, and not as claims that could result in any legal challenge. They point out that to get a certain level of expertise, it is nearly impossible to find anyone who has not publicly expressed a view on the policy issues in play.
There is no all-inclusive answer about coordination between the committees.
While there are currently campaigns in the US to block Meta-Instagram from lowering the age threshold for new users, Meta has made no such move in Israel.
As such, this issue has not been a focus of the dialogue. Meta would note, though, that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett worked with young social media stars to promote the country’s vaccination campaign.
Additional hearings are planned for the coming months, which means the real fireworks are probably just around the corner.