Analysis

Porn-blocking Bill Would Put Israel in Dubious Club

Arab countries and others that allow filtering of online pornography are also known for other types of censorship, as well as suppression of regime opponents.

In this cartoon, MK Shuli Moallem is seen stepping into the room of a teenager, backed by a cop. The teen is hurriedly covering up his computer screen, where a naked woman can be seen. "This is how you study for your bar mitzvah?" Moallem says.
Amos Biderman

One recurrent criticism of the bill – now under revision – that's aimed at making internet filters against porn the default option doesn’t relate directly to content, but rather to the disreputable "club" in which such legislation could put Israel. This club, critics note, includes countries like Iran and China.

On Monday, the Communications Ministry nixed the original version of the legislation, which would have required internet service providers to block pornographic websites and would demand that customers specifically ask for access to them. The new bill will likely not call for any censorship of content by the IPSs, but would toughen regulations related to their activities.

Nevertheless, even if the alternative bill eventually passes, the censorship it would impose is hardly sweeping. Moreover, it would allow users to ask their IPS to remove the filters. In other countries, viewing porn via the internet is completely forbidden, and the only solutions are technical workarounds like VPN software.

On the downside, however, allowing people to ask to have the filters removed would mean creating lists of those individuals who have submitted such requests, which would be stored by the ISPs.

Censoring pornography sites online

If one examines a map of the countries that censor porn on the internet, it’s clear that the highest concentration of such countries is in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Turkey. Those countries are also known for other types of censorship, as well as for arresting bloggers and opponents of the regime.

Iran, for instance, receives the second-lowest score on Freedom House’s index of internet and digital media freedom. The only country below it is China, which engages in sweeping technological monitoring of the web, blocks access to social media and Western websites, and also employs an army of some two million censors. According to one 2013 report, China even has censors posted in private companies.

In Iran, the web played an important role in the reformists’ battle against the results of the 2009 election, which they claimed were fraudulent, and the regime still hasn’t forgotten this. According to Freedom House, Iran also employs a combination of technological filters, flesh-and-blood censors and threats against websites to get sites to remove problematic material. In addition, it has arrested numerous bloggers, some of whom have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. There have even been reports of bloggers dying of torture after their arrest, like the case of Sattar Beheshti.

Though regimes like this obviously come to mind first when one thinks of internet censorship, the Western world has also experienced numerous debates and legal battles over this issue. In the United States, for example, laws were enacted in the latter half of the 1990s to stem the spread of pornography via the internet.

In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which made anyone who showed pornographic or indecent content to minors under the age of 18 over the internet liable to punishment. But in 1997 a court ruled that parts of it were unconstitutional.

In 1998, therefore, Congress passed a new law, the Child Online Protection Act, which forbade websites to allow minors to access pornographic content. But due to lengthy legal battles, the law was never implemented, and in 2009, it was finally buried when the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal against a lower court ruling that had overturned it.

The country whose situation most closely resembles Israel's in this realm is Great Britain, which Freedom House ranks as a country with internet freedom. After years of effort, the government of former Prime Minister David Cameron reached an agreement with ISPs to make filtering the default option. There, too, the justification was protecting children. But it quickly became clear that the filters installed by the ISPs also censored legitimate content.

Cameron’s plan encountered another obstacle when the European Union approved legislation in July 2015 accepting the principle of net neutrality, under which all information transmitted over the web must be treated equally and can neither be delayed nor blocked. Under this law, Cameron’s filters would be illegal. But his government announced at the time that it had secured an opt-out possibility. In any case, since then, of course, the British voted in a referendum to leave the EU.