Justice Ministry threatens Meta, Twitter, social media with tougher rules

social media giants have declined to provide sufficient Israel-specific data for the ministry to arrive at conclusions about whether they are doing enough to address the government’s concerns.

 Minister of Justice Gideon Saar speaks at a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President's residence in Jerusalem, on March 6, 2022. (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)
Minister of Justice Gideon Saar speaks at a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President's residence in Jerusalem, on March 6, 2022.
(photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

The Justice Ministry has threatened Meta, Google, Twitter and TikTok with tougher government regulations if they do not toe the line on a variety of issues regarding the provision of information as well as certain policy adjustments, according to letters to the social media giants exclusively obtained by The Jerusalem Post.

The letters were sent to the four juggernauts recently, after the ministry, led by Director-General Eran Davidi, concluded that it was not receiving sufficient cooperation in a dialogue that dates back around six months.

According to the ministry, the purpose of the dialogue is to better protect Israelis both in terms of national security and in privacy rights.

Back in February, Davidi even held a public hearing for representatives of Meta and Google, and since then the sides have exchanged a series of letters in which the ministry has asked for more specific information relating to Israel, and the social media giants have disputed some of those requests.

According to the letters, the social media giants have declined to provide sufficient Israel-specific data for the ministry to arrive at concrete conclusions about whether they are going far enough to address the government’s concerns about security and privacy.

In turn, the ministry told the giant internet companies that it was still open to them to provide answers to outstanding questions at any time, but that the ministry had already reached the stage that it would potentially start issuing tougher regulations even without the answers and further dialogue.

Despite the threat, the ministry did not set a firm deadline, signaling that no major policy change was imminent.Also, the ministry’s threat comes at a precarious time for the government, as election season is already in full swing.One strategy for the social media companies could be simply to try to wait out the current government.

Yet, this could risk the possibility that the future government might take the same position on these specific issues and blame the companies for having dragged out the issue.

Social media giants' response

In any case, the social media giants dispute the ministry’s version of events. They say they have cooperated, but that the ministry is not clear enough about what information it wants; or it asks for information that is impossible to define when posted in a way that implicates multiple countries. In addition, they say that the ministry had promised hearings for Twitter and TikTok, but inexplicably canceled those hearings with little notice.

The last few years have changed the global landscape for Meta-Facebook, Twitter, Google-YouTube, TikTok and other social media and technology giants.

They still have power and influence beyond what most multinational corporations could have dreamed of in the past, but as the EU, US and others have moved to increase oversight and regulation, Israel has decided to confront them too.

According to a mix of sources from the government, Meta, technology experts and a study of global trends, the future is dynamic and unclear.

In many ways, social media’s power is being challenged as never before. Meta threatened in February to pull out of Europe due to new requirements regarding operating transnational data centers, but then quickly qualified the threat when various European officials called its bluff.

In this new era of General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR)  privacy rules have restrained social media in the EU now for the last few years, more nations now believe they can confront the online powerhouses.

The latest turn of events is a far cry from the February hearing, which seemed almost like a vague, very friendly, getting-to-know-you icebreaker.

April demands

In April, the Post obtained a highly detailed questionnaire to which the government demanded that all of the social media giants respond.

According to this narrative, the public hearings were intended as an add-on to maximize the ability of the public to follow and be aware of the issue, but were not expected to get into the details.

In addition, Israeli officials are critical of the US Congress hearings’ process which they say produce big media headlines when a member of Congress gives a dramatic speech, but often lead to little real engagement between the sides or policy changes.

Rather, Israeli officials are in touch with their counterparts in democracies across the globe, 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.

According to a March 31 formal response by Meta to a government questionnaire about potentially adopting the “harmful content” standard as obligatory for social media removal of content on their platforms, strong democracies which have defined content required to be removed have done so in a “transparent process which takes into account various social interests and gives appropriate respect to freedom of speech and oversight by an objective legal system.”  

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,” whereas its experience with addressing problematic content has shown that definitions and the process “must be as dynamic as possible.”

This meant that the stand both sides take on regulation is only the opening shot in a potential grand battle over how to interpret and enforce regulations. This has major implications for how much more money Meta will have to spend to keep up with Israeli regulations and how much new liability it will be exposed to.

Other issues from Meta’s point of view include allegations that some members of the government’s committees examine these issues with prior public bias against it and other social media. In addition,the efforts of multiple committees, from the Justice Ministry and Communications Ministry, appear to be poorly coordinated.