Israel Facebook Law's main target is Palestinians

Surpassing the likes of China and UAE, Israel moves ahead with Facebook Law. Its main target: Palestinians
7 min read
12 Jan, 2022
Israel has long used big data to censor those that expose its inhumane policies, but the new "Facebook law", the most draconian censorship measure yet, gives authorities dangerously wide remit to target dissidents, writes Richard Silverstein.
A Palestinian journalist points at his restricted social media outlet Facebook account, at his office in the occupied-West Bank city of Hebron, on November 24, 2021. [Getty]

Facebook has been through the wringer the past few years for its tone-deaf approach to everything from data privacy to its role in inciting genocide in Myanmar. 

Thus, it will not be welcome news to Mark Zuckerberg that Israel's justice minister, Gideon Saar, is proposing a piece of draconian legislation, popularly named the "Facebook Law."  It would enforce widespread censorship of online content. Leading digital rights advocate Tehilla Schwartz Altschuler of the Israel Democracy Institute says such a provision "does not exist in any other democracy in the world." 

Touted by supporters as a law to ban incitement to terror, it goes far beyond that, sweeping up all types of content on social media platforms (which the Cyber Crimes Unit already does). Authorities could censor websites of Palestinian and Israeli human rights NGOs and media outlets, which have already faced stringent censorship. 

It would also apply to independent websites both inside and outside Israel, as the rules for determining what would be censored give wide latitude to judges and prosecutors to interpret them, and to remove a broad range of online content, including any material that “constitutes a “criminal offense” or where “there is a real possibility that its continued publication could be harmful to the security of an individual, public safety or the security of the state.”

"The law would permit authorities to direct social media companies to censor content, including search results, without notifying the original author that it has been removed"

In a case concerning the security of an individual, it is one thing to publish the identity or private information that may cause imminent harm to an individual.  But what about a case concerning criticism of a public official? Would this fall under the provision of endangering the security of an individual? And how do we define harming "public safety?"

Of course, one would not want threats of violence against public officials, agencies or institutions published online, but the issue is not as clear in cases of personal opinions, such as the debate about vaccine efficacy, or the right of Palestinians to engage in protest in the face of Israeli violence. Under the new law, it could be argued that publishing such views harms public health and safety, and such content could be censored. 

“The proposal is also far-reaching in what it covers. It would apply to every website, including an app to which part of the public has access, even if entry requires a code or a password, regardless of whether it’s free or not, or whether its server is in Israel or elsewhere" reported Israeli newspaper Haaretz. 

The law would permit authorities to direct social media companies to censor content, including search results, without notifying the original author that it has been removed. The companies would have no recourse, no system of appeal, and could be fined if they refuse. It would permit such censorship without any online warning that the content has been censored (as Google currently does).

It also allows for the suppression of entire websites or individual web pages on servers located inside or outside Israel; even if an Israeli reader tried to access an international URL, it would be sealed and inaccessible unless they used a proxy server offering an IP address outside Israel. 

As a Palestinian blogger, this law would have a detrimental impact on my own journalism, as I regularly publish Israeli national security secrets--from Israeli sources--which are under judicial gag order or military censorship and that most Israeli journalists refuse to cover. Currently, it is almost impossible to prevent Israelis from reading these reports. 

In fact, over 60% of my readership are Israelis who visit because I publish stories they cannot read in their own media.  But if the authorities are able to censor my content, then it will be much more difficult for the information I publish to access its core audience. 

It also goes without saying that the law would severely infringe on Palestinians’ right to express themselves online, and censor the NGOs that represent them. Israel's Shin Bet already uses massive data mining and artificial intelligence algorithms to monitor Palestinian social media for what it calls "incitement," by which it means any content that vigorously advocates for Palestinian rights.

Voices

Purportedly, the algorithm is designed to detect a potential future act of terrorism.  In other words, the technology performs a sort of magical act of mind-reading, knowing what a user will or may do in the future. If it sounds terrifying, that’s because it is. 

Israeli authorities regularly monitor social media and sift through online data to identify prospective assailants ahead of time, according to Gilad Erdan, Israel's public security minister. "Every event can lead to a discussion. You have to look for the special words that might lead you to the conclusion that something is dangerous," Erdan said. "The algorithm leads you to suspect someone." 

Using teams of psychologists, legal advisers and data experts, Israel has been using big data to preemptively identify supposed “threats” and “criminals” based on their online presence. This practice is highly controversial, but has been a pillar of Israel’s security operations against Palestinians for years.

But algorithms are only as smart as the people who devise them.  In Israel's case, that can lead to laughable results- like the Palestinian who posted a picture of himself next to his bulldozer under the Arabic caption: "Good morning!", which Facebook falsely translated as “attack them” in Hebrew and “hurt them” in English. 

"Purportedly, the algorithm is designed to detect a potential future act of terrorism.  In other words, the technology performs a sort of magical act of mind-reading, knowing what a user will or may do in the future. If it sounds terrifying, that’s because it is"

While any Arabic speaker would have immediately noticed the error, the man was arrested and remained in jail for days before the authorities admitted their error. He received not so much as an apology for his trouble. 

Similarly, Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour posted a poem of resistance she had written on Facebook.  Nothing in the poem spoke of, or even alluded to, violence or terror.  Yet she was sentenced to four years under house arrest for the temerity of posting content supporting Palestinian rights to resist Israeli oppression.

If these are the sorts of enforcement activities already engaged in by Israeli censors, it's worrisome to imagine what will result from the new legislation. It will be open season on those who express views that diverge from far-right mainstream Israeli political discourse. 

The proposed legislation is just the latest in a gradual decline of democratic rights taken for granted in most Western democracies.  Israel already maintains strict military censorship, which places censors in every TV newsroom to review reporting about sensitive security matters before broadcast.  It already restricts religious worship for its Muslim citizens. 

Perspectives

It already subverts artistic and academic freedom by suppressing works of art, literature, films, and theatre that shine a critical light on Israeli society. The Facebook Law reinforces the disintegration of these formerly sacrosanct values.

Social media users should not expect much from the platforms themselves in the way of defending their free speech rights. Despite users generating the advertising revenue that makes them profitable, as far as the Zuckerbergs of the world are concerned it's up to you to defend your right to speak on their platform. 

I approached Facebook and Twitter for a comment on the legislation. None of them has so far raised their voice against the bill. To do so would weaken their claim under Section 230 of the US code, which absolves publishers of responsibility for content published on their sites by readers or users. 

This is not a law to stop "incitement" as it's being billed.  It is a law to suppress digital content inconvenient to the State, and to further criminalise NGOs and human rights activists demanding Israeli accountability for its crimes under international law.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog and is a freelance journalist specialising in exposing secrets of the Israeli national security state. He campaigns against opacity and the negative impact of Israeli military censorship.

Follow him on Twitter: @richards1052

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.