Trump Can No Longer Block Twitter Users, but What About Netanyahu?

A U.S. federal court ruled on Wednesday that President Donald Trump could not block Twitter users - a decision which could have weighty implications not just for other American officials, but for public servants worldwide

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, May 16, 2018
\ POOL/ REUTERS

A U.S. federal court ruled on Wednesday that President Donald Trump could not block Twitter users – a decision which could have weighty implications not just for other American officials, but for public servants worldwide.

After all, this isn’t just an American problem; social media users in many countries complain that politicians block them. Just this week, we learned that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman had blocked a long list of Twitter users.

His spokespeople said he did so because the users in question cursed him. But some of the blocked users insisted they had merely voiced legitimate criticism in respectful language.

One of the people Lieberman blocked was Prof. Karine Nahon of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, who is also president of the Israel Internet Association. In her case, Lieberman’s staff admitted that blocking her had been a mistake, and Nahon told Haaretz that two hours later, she was unblocked.

But Lieberman isn’t unique. According to a study published last year by Tomer Avital, Esti Segal and the television program “Hatzinur,” the politicians most likely to block users are ministers from the governing coalition, first and foremost Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But prominent opposition politicians like Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich and former Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon have also blocked users.

Avital petitioned the Knesset Ethics Committee against Lapid after the latter blocked him in 2015. The team that runs Lapid’s Facebook page, Avital wrote, “is financed by public money,” and the page should therefore be “a model of democracy that allows anyone to conduct a conversation with the Knesset member.”

The committee rejected his petition, saying this issue “doesn’t belong to the realm of ethics, but only to the public realm.” But many people disagree, including Nahon, who welcomed the American court’s ruling.

Nahon said that after Lieberman blocked her, several other users wondered why she was complaining, telling her she could “say what you want on your own site.”

“But that’s not true,” she said. “The political conversation doesn’t take place on other sites. It takes place on MKs’ accounts.”

That was also the view expressed by Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in Wednesday’s ruling, issued by the U.S. district court for southern New York. Effectively, Nahon said, what the judge said was “I don’t care who the account belongs to physically; what interests me is who controls the content and who controls blocking.”

“She made it clear that nowadays, politicians’ Facebook and Twitter pages (and, to a lesser extent, their personal websites) are public spaces where political conversation takes place,” Nahon added.

In Israel, only one lawsuit has so far been filed on this issue. It was submitted by Hadera city councilwoman Shirly Oded against the municipality and Mayor Zvi Gendelman over the blocking of users on the city’s official Facebook page. Six Hadera residents later joined the suit.

Last week, the Haifa Administrative Affairs Court approved a settlement under which anyone who was a party to the suit would be unblocked. Other city residents can submit requests to be unblocked after reading the page’s guidelines.

But State Comptroller Joseph Shapira ruled a year ago that politicians and other officials can’t treat their social media accounts as their private property.

Shapira, who issued his decision in his role as the public ombudsman, laid down four tests for determining whether an account is public or private: whether it is officially designated as public or private, who funds it, who runs it and what is published on it. Thus as Nahon explained, even if Netanyahu posts a picture of his dog on his Facebook page, “that doesn’t make it a private page. It’s a page used to communicate with millions of users.”

Any public Facebook page belonging to a public agency or a public figure must publish a usage policy that includes rules for reasonable and appropriate behavior by users, Shapira continued. These policies must reflect “the right to freedom of expression” and “the importance of public criticism,” he wrote, which means that disproportionate punishments should not be imposed on users who violate them. For instance, he said, first violations should be punished only by a warning or blockage for a limited time.

Nahon agreed with Shapira, adding that she hopes the American ruling will help prompt policy changes in Israel. It might sometimes be justified to block users, she said, but only in extreme cases such as incitement to violent and racism – behavior, incidentally, which some politicians ignore – or perhaps in cases of hired trolls.

“Blocking can’t be the default option,” she said. “It’s an extreme measure which only should be used exceptionally.”