Number of Items Censored by Facebook in Israel Has Quadrupled This Year

In the first half of 2016, Facebook “restricted access” to 962 content items – almost 10 percent of the requests it received from around the world. Only 236 items were restricted in the preceding six-month period.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 22, 2016.
Bloomberg

In the first half of the year, the number of items censored by Facebook quadrupled due to content classified as illegal, says a transparency report issued by the company Thursday. There has also been an increase in the number of requests for information filed by government bodies in Israel, and in the number of requests fulfilled by Facebook.

In the first half of 2016, Facebook agreed to “restrict access” to 962 content items on the social network. In the preceding six-month period, just 236 items were restricted.

“When governments believe that something on the Internet violates their laws, they can ask companies like Facebook to restrict access to that content,” Facebook explains.

The company says that some of the content removal was due to non-profit organizations, charities and private citizens calling its attention to content of this nature.

“When we receive such a request, it is examined to see if the specific content does indeed violate local laws. If so, then we make the content unavailable in the relevant country or territory,” says Facebook. In other words, the specific content is restricted only for Israeli use, but usually remains available in other countries and the Palestinian Authority.

Regarding the reasons for restricting access, Facebook says only: “We restricted access to content that was alleged to have violated harassment laws, and content related to Holocaust denial.”

These requests account for about 10 percent of the world total of 9,663 – a steep drop from 83 percent the previous year, due largely to the sharp rise of requests in France in 2015 for the removal of a picture from the November terror attacks there.

Censorship on Facebook has become a significant issue in Israel over the past year or so. Government and law-enforcement authorities say that social networks are a major factor in the incitement that leads to lone-wolf terror attacks, like the wave of stabbing attacks in Israel last year.

“Facebook has become a monster,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said in July. “The young generation in the PA conducts its entire discourse of incitement and lies on the Facebook platform, and ultimately goes out to commit murder.”

Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked are jointly promoting the “Facebook bill,” which would give administrative courts the power to order Internet companies to remove inciting content, when the content constitutes a criminal offense and there is a real possibility that its continued publication poses a danger to individual, public or state security. The bill is due to be brought to a vote in the ministerial committee on Sunday.

Facebook does not specify the total number of requests it received, and how many it rejected. The ministers say it is the vast majority of requests. In addition to the bill, Shaked and Erdan say that in the past year there has been a significant increase in Facebook’s agreeing to Israeli government requests to remove content. In September, Shaked said Facebook had removed 95 percent of the content that Israel had requested to have removed.

The Facebook transparency report reveals a limited amount of information, but this year the company added two categories. One has to do with information requests from governments about users in emergency situations – Facebook says it received 117 such requests, and provided information in 79.49 percent of them. The second category concerns government requests to preserve information in accounts, for possible further lawsuits. The company received 35 such requests relating to 42 accounts.

In the first half of the year, Facebook also received 315 requests as part of legal proceedings to obtain information on 377 user accounts. The company provided certain information in 68.57 percent of these cases. In the previous year, it received 294 such requests about 340 users, and provided at least partial information in 59.52 percent of the cases.

Facebook says that requests for information on accounts went up by 27 percent worldwide in the first half of the year, compared to the second half of 2015 – from 46,710 to 59,229.