Israel needs legislation limiting online incitement – opinion

‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ Every fan of Spider Man movies knows this age-old adage. It made me think that maybe Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t identify with this cinematic genre, since the protagonists use their superhuman powers to protect the world. The founder of Facebook has somehow become a superhero, because he has enormous power thanks to the technology he controls. This technology can do a lot of good in the world, but also a lot of harm.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Ben Parker

The whistleblower who documented the extent of this danger last year is Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, who exposed documents that show how, from 2018, Facebook’s algorithms favored the discord, promoted violent content and incited hatred. That year, Facebook’s annual revenue more than doubled, from $56 billion to $119 billion. Facebook is of course not alone in this story. Other social media companies including TikTok, Instagram (which is a subsidiary of Facebook’s parent company Meta), Twitter and YouTube are all focused solely on their financial gain. Hate-filled posts are worth a lot of money to corporate executives. For some people, however, the cost is loss of life.

In recent attacks, what is starkly apparent is the young age of terrorists active on social media, awash with disturbing messages of incitement and calls for the murder of Jews. In the current wave of terrorism, the virtual world and social networks operate almost like a laboratory that produces explosives. These sites spray anti-Israeli venom trickling through the veins of thousands of young people who are ready to grab any weapon they can use to kill Jews.

Israel’s defense establishment has pushed itself to its limits in an effort to protect Israeli citizens. For several months, IDF soldiers have been sealing breaches in the security fence with their bodies, while social media remains open and full of extremely violent posts that lead to incitement and fan the flames of terrorist activity.

Content supporting terrorism that has gone viral can inspire viewers to commit future attacks. Obviously, when this type of content is monitored and reported to the social networks on which it appears, it is expected that it will be removed as quickly as possible. In practice, however, Facebook and other similar platforms are actually contributing to the escalation of this wave of terrorism. For example, look at the Facebook page of Dia Hamarsha, who murdered five people in the recent attack in Bnei Brak. Dozens of toxic nationalist posts and photos of terrorists who murdered Israelis were found on his Facebook page. Yet Facebook has not deleted any of these violent posts or images.

Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram apps are seen on a smartphone in this illustration taken July 13, 2021 (Credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC)

The statistics are alarming. Over the past two months, Israel’s Attorney General’s cyber department has received 19,000 requests from security forces to remove provocative and pro-terrorist content from various social networks. Our hope was that due to the dangerous nature of this content and the proven link between content inciting violence and terrorist attacks, social media companies would respond to these reports within hours or even minutes, but in reality , This does not happen. Not only are social media not responding quickly enough to requests from the defense establishment, but senior officials in Israel’s Justice Ministry and Attorney General’s Office estimate that 15% of requests to remove content inciting violence are rejected. This amounts to hundreds of toxic and dangerous messages.

Seder night

Take for example the incident that occurred last year on the evening of the Passover Seder at 6:00 p.m. when IT attorneys approached the district court judge seeking an injunction to remove content. considered a ticking bomb. The site was shut down, but Facebook refused to remove the page inciting violence. It is important to emphasize here that the procedure for issuing an order to remove content from the Internet is similar to the procedure for extending the custody of a suspect. All issues are thoroughly discussed, and it is shameful that the security of the State of Israel depends on a goodwill gesture from a conglomerate.

At the moment, Israel is currently conducting a round of diplomatic relations with Facebook, whose status is at the same level as a country, with its own independent laws. In the absence of legislation, Israel cannot exercise governmental authority over Facebook and other social media networks, and therefore they remain at their mercy.

FOR YEARS there have been many attempts to enact laws that would help regulate and remove social media content, and it almost succeeded in 2018. Initially, the Facebook law was a bill promoted by the MK Revital Swid (Zionist Union), which was designed to assist authorities by providing tools to effectively deal with incitement on social media.

Later, MP Swid’s proposal was consolidated with another bill led by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and then Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Unfortunately, a few days before it was to pass the second and third readings, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that it be removed from the daily agenda, on the grounds that it constituted a danger to the rights of individuals and the right to freedom of expression. . It’s possible that Netanyahu’s opposition to the bill isn’t actually about free speech, but rather about his struggle to maintain control of social media and prevent the regulation of his online activity.

The Facebook bill promoted by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar to prevent incitement on social media was again the subject of public debate last year. According to this bill, which was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislative Affairs but for which the legislative procedures had not yet been completed in the Knesset, the prosecution may, with the approval of the Attorney General, apply to the district court judge and request that an order to remove offensive content posted on social media.

Again, there was an outcry over the bill. Some argued that the bill was draconian and went too far on free speech. Others thought it provided the authorities with unprecedented and disproportionate tools for government censorship. Currently, the Davidi Committee, led by the Director General of the Ministry of Justice, is examining possible courses of action vis-à-vis social media in many areas, and an alternative formulation of the Facebook bill.

Terrorist organizations exploit these liberal tools employed by Western democracies. In today’s reality where we suffer again and again from terrorist attacks, the time has come for us to ask ourselves if the fight to defend freedom of expression (which in any case does not risk being harmed ) is more important than human life?

It is important to remember that Meta is an American conglomerate with which the Israeli authorities generally work well, although there is still much to do. On the other hand, the situation vis-à-vis TikTok is much more complex, since it is a Chinese-owned entity. This means that Israel is much more dependent on a business that operates on the whims of a dictatorship. Israel cannot rely on goodwill gestures and therefore passing legislation is a necessary step.

The whole world understands that we have no choice but to limit the power of social networks. US President Joe Biden backs important reforms and believes social media should be held accountable for any damage they cause. There have also been calls to split Meta into a number of smaller companies that would compete with each other. The EU is also promoting a new Digital Services Act that would require Facebook to disclose all information about its algorithms and filtering considerations.

Israel must vigorously enact legislation drafted precisely in such a way as to strike the right balance between maintaining freedom of expression and the urgent need to create a mechanism that would allow the authorities to do their job in the face of growing danger. At the same time, additional measures must be taken, such as allowing the families of those murdered in the recent wave of terrorism to sue social networks for not removing content from the pages of terrorists who carried out attacks during from which their loved ones were killed.

Israel must also adopt economic policies. It is ridiculous that social media can simply refuse to comply with orders issued by a judge in the State of Israel to remove content inciting violence, when Israel pays the conglomerate more than 50 million shekels for the advertising. Admittedly, this is an insignificant amount for a conglomerate that brings in tens of billions of dollars a year, but this action still has declarative significance.

In any case, it is important to take practical steps so that people who post on social media understand that Israel takes this threat seriously.

The writer is a journalist at Maariv.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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