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The forming of an unholy alliance
We are liable to witness the forming of an unholy alliance between the Internet giants and the state, and the critically wounded victims will be us, the citizens.
A menacing and frightening narrative has been reverberating recently in the public and political arenas. We keep hearing that vast forces are poised to destroy us! The bullies in this story are the digital giants, especially Facebook, Google and Twitter.

Channel 10 news recently ran a series of features titled “The Facebook Dictatorship” and The Marker warns us against the “new superpowers” and their economic clout. Every morning the media bring us new reasons for panic: shaming, insults to public officials, bullying and violence, fake news, echo chambers and biased content displayed to users, terrorism, political polarization, interference in election campaigns by foreign countries and more.

All this attention is important because it reflects genuine issues we must deal with and increases the public’s digital literacy about the forces that stand behind the advances of social media. The Internet, it turns out, is not as free and open as we thought it was. The companies behind it are focused on their bottom line and their business practices are often reminiscent of the tycoons of the “old world.”

But the direction in which this discourse is headed – with calls for government intervention, restrictions and regulation – requires further discussion and is not necessarily the right solution.

Why not? First and foremost because any regulation or supervision of the Internet and or content on social networks would inherently involve removal or deletion of content, pre-publication permission, licenses for handling certain types of content, limits on the size of the players in order to thwart excessive concentration of the content market. Is this reminiscent of something?

It sounds a lot like the system we have in place today to deal with traditional media regulation. The crux of media regulation is the ping-pong between lawmakers and regulators and media corporations (newspapers, television franchisees and the large digital media sites). The former look to intervene by means of legislation, while the latter promise self-regulation as a substitute for legislation.

Historically speaking, this is how journalistic ethics emerged, as an inflatable life jacket employed by media corporations to save themselves from legislative interference, which they inflated whenever a threat appeared, and then let the air out of when the pressure receded.

As the threat of legislation to govern Internet platforms increases, we are seeing precisely this phenomenon. The companies plead: “Don’t regulate us; we will deal with the matter ourselves. We will clarify the community standards and terms of use and enforce them better. We will hire more staff and deploy more sophisticated algorithms to apply the rules.”

This is not necessarily a bad reaction. But self-regulation can also take a different form – informal collaboration between the giant companies and governments. Are governments afraid of viral offensive posts that target social service officers, or of incitement to terrorism that might harm public safety? “Go ahead,” the companies say, “simply ask us and we’ll remove the offending content immediately. There’s no need for legislation. Oh, and let’s set up a direct channel of communication to deal with all future incidents.”

This form of cooperation harbors one of the most dangerous threats to human rights that can be imagined. Far more than any of the threats posed by the Internet giants themselves, this informal collusion among two censors – the government (the traditional censor) that asks for content to be removed, under the radar and with no public oversight, transparency, or legal authorization; and the Internet companies (the new censors) that comply with the request in order to avoid legislative interference.

A few months ago the state prosecutor at the Attorney-General’s Office published, for the first time, data going back two years about the number of informal requests to remove online posts that were sent from the government to the various platforms. “Alternative enforcement” it was called by Shai Nitzan, the chief state prosecutor.

Even after the data were published, there is no policy document that enumerates the state prosecu- tor’s enforcement priorities or its proportionality.

How many requests, and on what subjects? Only terrorism? Incitement to violence? Hate speech? Libel? Or perhaps the State Prosecutor’s Office wakes up only when a public official is being insulted? How were the requests handled? How was the removal policy applied?

From the earliest days of the Internet revolution, many countries, including Israel, have exploited the new technology, not in order to expand the protection of human rights but to restrict freedom of speech, monitor potential threats and in practice to deter dissent. In addition to the biometric database, surveillance cameras and other means, Israel monitors activity on the Internet, both in Israel and abroad, of its citizens as well as residents of the territories, and even non-citizens active in other networks. On the other hand, there is no need to exaggerate both the vast quantity of personal data the Internet giants possess or the potential for its abuse.

Should the day ever come when all these forces unite, individual rights will be a thing of the past. We are liable to witness the forming of an unholy alliance between the Internet giants and the state, and the critically wounded victims will be us, the citizens. All the threats of Internet legislation in fact bring us closer to this dangerous collaboration.

Ultimately, there is a germ of truth in all the fears about the power of the Internet giants. But when these fears lead to calls for government oversight, it is crucial that we also consider the inherent weakness in that intervention.

Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler is head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Democracy in the Information Age project.
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