Analysis

Israel’s Anti-porn Bill Isn’t Designed to Protect Children but to Shame Parents

Freedom to use the internet is a matter of freedom of expression, and the moment we’re ashamed we also remain silent

FILE PHOTO: A man is reflected in a computer screen.
Bloomberg

“We can really achieve a breakthrough that may of course be historic, a first,” MK Miki Zohar (Likud) said at the meeting of the committee he formed to pass a bill requiring internet service providers to block access to porn websites as the default. To enter such a site, you’d have to key in a code.

”If in the end we reach understandings on all the issues, I think we’ll finally have a law and a real solution for children,” Zohar said.

Well, there may be a law, but the last thing that can be said is that it the legislation will be a “real solution for children.” The bill and the half-baked ideas that Zohar tossed out during the discussion, while trying to portray himself as the protector of children, are a classic example of building a slippery slope.

The current law forbids the display of “sexual relations characterized by violence, abuse, contempt, humiliation or exploitation,” while the new version forbids the display of “sexual relations of any kind.” It also prohibits “the display of nudity or a human sex organ.”

In the bill and during the committee discussion, what stood out was the egregious contrast between the lip service – maintaining privacy and doing no harm – and the total contempt for the industry the Knesset members are trying to police. They mobilized totally disproportionate means that could cause damage far greater than the improvement they aren’t really providing.

There was a reason Gael Azriel, the Justice Ministry’s legal adviser, was alarmed when Zohar proposed sending the Population Registry to internet service providers as if Israelis' personal details were a grocery list. It’s as if one of the country’s worst information leaks ever – the leak of Population Registry data discovered in 2011 – never happened.

If that’s not enough, Zohar also wants to link the database with the internet and rely on Israel’s cybersecurity expertise to ensure that somehow everything will be all right – despite countless incidents when our most personal information was poured online.

Values and means

During his work before the discussion, Zohar learned one very important detail: Internet service providers know, or can easily find out, your browsing history.

Instead of trying to find a way to reduce this danger to privacy, Zohar has turned the issue into an excuse for any future damage to privacy – damage that’s required for the sacred goal of preventing children from seeing porn. “I’m concerned for your children too,” he told MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz).

During the discussion, Zohar and MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi) said they were tired of the obstacles put up by technology experts and legal advisers. For these legislators, the technical issues are minor details that will be taken care of, and it makes no difference how.

“There are people here who talk about values, and there are people here who have to translate the values into methods of implementation,” Moalem-Refaeli said. “I think that as legislators, as emissaries of the public, as leaders of the public, we’re talking about values. The value that we want to provide is to prevent children and teenagers from surfing pornographic websites.”

Moalem-Refaeli thus made clear how she confuses values and means. “Preventing access to porn” isn’t a value, it’s a tool that can be used for implementing values. And by the way, on the other side of the political spectrum, values that MKs Zandberg and Dov Khenin (Joint List) are willing to fight for include gender equality and sexuality not marked by exploitation or objectification.

Moalem-Refaeli and Zohar’s confusion of values with means is accompanied by a total lack of understanding of technology – not only the way the internet works but also the complexity of translating values into (a) code. And on the internet, “code is law,” as Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig wrote two decades ago.

The legislators are merely trying to push their “values” and treat technology as an object waiting to serve them. They don’t understand the values in whose name they’re acting, or the complexity of the playing field on which they’re trying to impose their legislation. So we can’t expect them to provide a “solution for our children.”

Opening the gates

But that doesn’t seem to bother them; after all, they’re trying to protect the children. Their solution is designed not as a fence for keeping children away from harmful content, but as a threat to shame the parents. Not to mention that freedom to use the internet is a matter of freedom of expression, and the moment we’re ashamed we also remain silent.

In the discussion, Zohar said that if you decide to activate the code, you’ve knocked down the fence for protecting your children. You and all the members of your household will be able to watch porn. The gate is open to you, but your children will pay the price.

Zohar and a representative of telecom company Cellcom admitted that in the end, lists of “porn users” would be created, intentionally or not. And that in itself provides a huge opening for exploitation.

As Nir Hirshman, a Likudnik and member of the Digital Rights Movement, warned: “You want to bring back the eavesdropping by Mapai” – a forerunner of the Labor Party. “You want a nation of informants who look over their shoulder to see who’s following them, and shady officials who have blacklists of deviants.”

Meanwhile, an article in the business daily Calcalist suggests that Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan is reviving the so-called Facebook bill, which would let the authorities take down any content deemed potentially criminal. The authors of that legislation ignore the technological and social complexities and simply want more power to control the public debate.