Facebook has removed dozens of posts and comments from its platform at the state’s request over the past three years. The State Prosecutor’s Office says the content removed was aimed at police officers and public servants, and included threats against police officers, calls to harm them and to publicize details about their personal lives.
Some of the posts that were removed were not archived, a policy that, according to Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, makes it difficult to monitor requests to remove content and the degree to which these undermine freedom of expression.
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Police requests to remove content are first submitted to the cyber department of the prosecution, which transfers to the social networks only those requests that it approves. The police have also asked to remove posts that document police violence, but the prosecution has rejected such requests.
According to the state, 95 percent of the requests transferred to Facebook and other social media related to support for or incitement to terror. The rest involved harm to minors and to public servants. In such cases the request is made “only when the offensive post raises an allegation of a crime or threat, sexual harassment or violation of privacy,” the prosecution said.
In response to a freedom of information request submitted by the Movement for Freedom of Information and Hebrew University’s Clinic for Human Rights in Cyberspace, it noted that only 0.00027 percent of the cyber department’s work deals with posts relating to policemen or public servants.
Over the past three years the prosecution has also asked Facebook to remove comments to posts. In 2018 the prosecution asked to remove 41 comments and 24 were removed; in 2019, 20 of 35 comments were removed.
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Prosecution sources said that one of the posts removed claimed that a female police officer, whose photo was included in the post, was having sex with other policemen to advance professionally. Another post included a call to harm a policeman, and provided his personal details and photo.
Other posts that were removed included threats to Muslim women who had joined the police, with one post claiming they were serving in the Temple Mount area. One of these posts led the policewoman targeted to leave the force. On the other hand, some of the posts that police sought to remove raised no suspicion of a crime, but were simply critical of the organization and documented, for example, violent arrests.
According to the prosecution, requests to remove content are part of an overall approach to “alternative enforcement” in cases where the conventional criminal process, like filing indictments, isn’t possible. The goal is to limit the damage caused by the content by dealing with the posts, rather than the posters.
The prosecution said the cyber department acts against posts that relate to public servants, like policemen, only if there is a request to do so. Requests will be forwarded to the social network only if a possible crime was committed or the guidelines of the platform were violated. The decision to forward a request takes into account the public interest, how widely it had been disseminated, its target audience, its severity, the amount of time it has been online, the responses to it and “its potential to go viral.”
A petition filed to the High Court of Justice by the Adalah organization alleged that the state lacks the authority to remove content from social media. The state wrote in response that “The cyber department is very restrained in this matter, and only when the post does real harm to the public interest and the proper functioning of the public service.”
The cyber department does not keep records of removed posts and they usually cannot be recovered. Hayut said during the hearing on Adalah’s petition last month that without documentation, it’s hard to prove whether removing them constitutes a disproportionate or constitutional violation of freedom of expression.
The police said in response that it “takes seriously an attempt at harming or shaming policemen in the context of fulfilling their duty to serve and protect Israeli citizens, including through posts on social media. The handling of offensive posts against policemen, some of which involve sexual harassment, shaming and humiliation, the violation of gag orders and the terms of service of these social networks, etc., is tailored to the circumstances of the case.”
Facebook said, “We are constantly removing content that violates the rules of the community irrespective of who reports it. When we are told that something on Facebook or Instagram violates local laws but does not violate the rules of our community, we may limit the availability of the content in that country where it’s illegal. Every half year we publish a global transparency report that details the instances in which access to content is restricted due to requests from various sources about content that violates local law.”