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It's a Short Path From Filtering Porn to Filtering Zionism

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It's easier for kids to consume porn on internet than to buy a popsicle at a kiosk, says Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, explaining legislation to  automatically block all 'offensive material', unless the client explicitly asks for access.
It's easier for kids to consume porn on internet than to buy a popsicle at a kiosk, says Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, explaining legislation to automatically block all 'offensive material', unless the clienCredit: Dreamstime.com

Who could be against preventing children from seeing pornography on the internet?

Put that way, almost no one. That would explain why Eitan Cabel, Rachel Azaria and even Ahmed Tibi – all Knesset members from the center-left who aren’t usually among Israel’s censors – sponsored a bill requiring internet service providers to automatically install filters that block porn, unless a user explicitly asks otherwise.

“It’s easier for a child to consume onerous content on the web than it is to buy a popsicle at a kiosk,” said Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, explaining the legislation.

Slope alert

The fact that Moalem-Refaeli, a Knesset member from Habayit Hayehudi, is the prime mover behind the legislation should raise some questions. No doubt as a mother and religiously observant woman, she would like to stamp out pornography, gambling, violent entertainment and the like.

But she would also like to stamp out critical voices like the human-rights organizations B’Tselem and Adala, too. That would go a long way to explaining why two scions of the far-right, Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) and David Bitan (Likud), are backing the law.

No doubt they are concerned about porn like the rest of us. But they also come from the camp that also has a very narrow view of what is acceptable public discourse. It’s not just naked bodies doing naughty things that they don’t like, it’s organizations that in their view make Israel look bad in the eyes of the world and aren’t sufficiently Zionist. 

Lists lurking in the dark

Smotrich was behind a so-far vain effort to award tax breaks only to organizations that “act for the good of Israeli citizens and not against the State of Israel in the world.” Bitan is supporting a new bill that would forbid Israelis from appearing before certain international bodies. He has also called to revoke the citizenship of B'Tselem Executive Director Hagai El-Ad.

The proposed Law for Blocking Offensive Websites is the perfect tool for widening this campaign to political censorship.

The law would require internet service providers to block “offensive” websites and content, without saying what constitutes offensive. That decision would be left in the hands of the communications minister.

Why not define “offensive?” And why give authority to define it to a politician rather than a technocrat or an independent body? You can’t help but think that the law was written this way to make it flexible enough to one day employ it politically.

Under the proposed law, ISPs will be allowed to remove the filters upon explicit application by mail, phone or online after they check that the person making the request isn’t a minor. But this is completely superfluous. The ISPs are already required to offer filtering services to those who want it. The take-up rate has been low, however, which provides an interesting answer to who would want children to be looking at porn. In theory almost everyone, but in practice apparently, not many parents seem that worried.

Outing the porn addicts

Moalem-Refaeli and company think they know better, so they are going to choose for them. What that will mean, however, is that lurking deep inside the databases of the ISPs will be lists of people who asked to be unblocked, and ipso facto, must be porn addicts.  

In a country that can’t even keep its nuclear bomb (according to foreign sources) a secret, you can imagine how little time it will take for these lists to surface.

On free-speech issues, it’s easy to become alarmist whenever any limits are imposed. Even if the law itself doesn’t present a threat to freedoms, you can always argue there’s always the risk of its chilling effect or its abuse at the hand of officials.

Normally in free-wheeling Israel, I would say these concerns are overblown, but Israel is becoming less free-wheeling and the dangers to free expression are growing.

This isn’t Turkey or Russia, where internet sites are taken down and the government sends over troops to seize control of newspapers and arrest editors. In Israel, the campaign is moving slowly – two steps forward with outrageous legislation and one step back in face the of public opposition or a legal challenge – but the direction is clear. 

Ten years ago, when the first filtering legislation was proposed, it could be seen as a benign attempt at protecting our children. Today, only the most nave can imagine that it will end there.

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