Israeli Justice Ministry Aims to Empower Judges to Block Websites Linked to Terrorism, Crime

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A meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
A meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.Credit: Knesset spokesman

Israel's Justice Ministry is sponsoring a bill that would allow district judges to block access to international websites giving a platform for terrorism, pedophilia, or crimes related to drugs or gambling.

The ministry is submitting the bill on behalf of the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Police, which want it because of its potential for thwarting crime. The bill does not cover social-media sites such as Facebook or Twitter.

According to the proposal, a district court judge would have the power to restrict access to a site, or to part of a site, once convinced that restriction is crucial to preventing crime from being continued; or to block user access to activity that if done in Israel, would be a crime. The court could also order internet service providers to prevent the content on the site from being found, rather than order the whole site to be deleted. In the case of sites run from Israel, the court can order their removal from the server.

The bill would enable any police officer, ranked assistant commissioner and up, to apply the order to additional URLs of the website, if it turns out that it started operating elsewhere. The order would expire in 30 days unless confirmed by the court.

On Wednesday, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee discussed the bill, in the presence of the legal counsel to the Shin Bet, ahead of its final preparation for voting into law. The committee members decided to expand its scope to apply to individuals suspected of terrorism, not only terror organizations that the state has already recognized.

In parallel, the Knesset is discussing another bill that would enable the police to order, when armed with a court order, the removal of content or statements from social networks that violate the law.

Attorney Uri Sabah of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel warned about the potential for abuse, given that content can be blocked or even deleted based on confidential evidence. While the intent to fight offensive material in respect to terrorism or pedophilia is laudable, he said, the state must behave transparently. "It will have to disclose the list of sites that get blocked, so the public can see that power has not been abused at the expense of civil rights,” he said.

This would be the first time that internet service providers are required to limit content that can lead to criminal activity in Israel.

However, some said they worry that the bill could wind up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Savvy surfers can sail past the proposed restrictions and crime will wind up not being prevented. What it mainly achieves is to reduce the probability of surfers seeing offensive content, they said. Also, the law could wind up blocking legitimate sites and detract from freedom of expression, the committee was told.

As for blocking content that is perfectly legal in the home country where the site operates, but which would be illegal in Israel, the people behind the bill feel that when it comes to pedophilic material or the sale of hard drugs, all countries will work together to rid the internet of that content.

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