Censorship, democracy and the 'Facebook bill'

The bill seeks to give the state control over social media content via censorship.

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We have become accustomed to hearing about anti-democratic and, at times, downright bizarre bills that are placed before the Knesset morning and night. While most of those bills would affect our lives only slightly, this is not the case regarding the so-called “Facebook bill” that is being debated in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee – a bill that, if it were passed into law, would enable officials of the State Attorney’s Office to ask an administrative court for the removal of content from social networks or from search engines if they thought that such content constituted a criminal offense and endangered individual or public security.
Yes, you heard that correctly. The bill does not ask for ordinary criminal procedure, with its accompanying due process. It is, for all practical purposes, a demand to censor content without recourse to criminal procedure or the sort of evidence required in a criminal trial, and carries the possibility of an ex parte request for the content’s removal.
The bill’s explanatory notes speak in the language of the war on terrorism. As Justice Ministry officials would have it, sometimes the content must be removed before its author can be located. The notes mention the “stabbing intifada,” which, they claim, was terrorism inspired via social media.
If fighting terrorism is truly the necessity behind the bill, we can all agree that limiting the right to free expression to some extent is a worthy goal.
But the bill does not limit the power to demand the removal of content from social media to cases of terrorism and situations where the author of the content cannot be located. It seeks to give the state control over social media content via censorship.
The bill compromises the right to free expression that belongs to each of us, as citizens of the State of Israel, in that it enables the state to ask for an injunction to remove content about any criminal offense whatsoever, even if the author is an Israeli citizen who can be located in Israel and prosecuted.
The right to free expression is a particularly sensitive one. The government has a strong tendency to restrict it. The bill constitutes an attempt by the state to place free speech over the social networks under broader restrictions than any that exist in the non-digital world.
The frustration that underlies the bill is completely understandable. Yet while the digital revolution is an event of historic proportions, its shortcomings are coming to light. For example, our social media news feed is driven by algorithms that skew the flow of information according to the needs of the corporate giants. The rules of the game and the limits of free expression are not determined by the state but rather by international conglomerates that do not always understand Israel’s unique circumstances, and that often enforce the rules without justification or sufficient transparency.
It is certainly proper to think about coping methods that require more transparency regarding what makes information go viral as well as the content-removal policy and the way it is carried out.
Still, when it comes to social media, we have learned that people are willing to state, write, or type into a computer or cellular telephone things that they would never dare to say in a face-to-face conversation.
A person is typing into a “machine” finds it easier to express offensive, bigoted, or xenophobic opinions and share malicious, hateful and wicked statements written by others.
Thus, a substantial portion of the incidents that the bill seeks to remedy – such as online incitement to terrorism, insulting public servants, manifestations of hatred and racism, incitement to violence, shaming and bullying – are actually symptoms of a larger problem known as the online disinhibition effect. This is a psychological phenomenon that cannot be addressed by legislation, punishment, or censoring content, but rather by increasing literacy and education regarding the relationship of man and machine. Unfortunately, it is easier for the Justice Ministry and members of Knesset to engage in censorship than in education.
The author is a Senior Fellow and head of the Democracy in the Information Age Program at the Israel Democracy Institute.