Knesset Panel Clears Bill Allowing Court to Censor Internet

Critics say the bill gives police and prosecutors too much power and doesn't ensure a transparent process

AP

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday approved a bill that will empower Israeli courts to block internet sites deemed illicit, but in a process critics said was insufficiently transparent.

The bill, part of Justice Minster Ayelet Shaked’s campaign against abuse of the internet by criminals and terrorists, now goes to the full Knesset for second and third readings before it becomes law.

“When freedom of expression becomes the freedom to trample and is used to harm and exploit human life, or for criminal purposes, this is the place where the government must take the reins and say ‘No more.’ Freedom of expression should have a framework,” Shaked said after the committee approved the legislation that was supported by six MKs, with one abstaining.

The proposed law aims to crack down on online purveyors of pedophilia, gambling, drugs, prostitution and terrorism. It will allow the police and State Prosecutor’s Office to petition a district court to block websites. Internet service providers can also be ordered to block search engines from including banned sites in their results.

It goes hand in hand with the so-called Facebook bill, which was also proposed by Shaked along with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, It would allow the Administrative Affairs Court, at the request of the government, to issue an order instructing social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove inflammatory content from their sites.

But critics, including opposition lawmakers, said the law blocking illicit websites was needlessly secretive and didn’t give sites that are targeted adequate ways to defend themselves.

“We acknowledge that everything appearing here in the protocol is all nice and good, but the language of the law doesn’t support this. Rather, it goes in the direction of secrecy,” said MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz). “What has emerged from the discussions is that classified material will be employed frequently.”

Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union) said the legislation would undermine democracy. “We support the war on online crime, but this law uses draconian tools. There is a real concern that the government could use it to seek to block any website. The question is where we draw the line,” she said.

Among other things, the proposed legislation says the court can issue an order without the site owner being present at the hearing, although it requires the state to make an effort to find the owner and allows interested parties, such as the Israel Internet Association, to make a case against closing a particular site.

Judges issuing orders are not required to explain their decisions, and the evidence that officials use to seek an order can be classified – an issue that aroused concern among opposition MKs.

Nor are the police and prosecutors required to give notice of their plan to seek a court order, which officials said was aimed at preventing targeted websites from circumventing the order and lengthening the process of winning the order.

Civil society organizations have warned that the law will give the government and security forces a freer hand to act against Arab citizens. According to reports by Shaked’s Justice Ministry, in the past year the government has made dozens of indictments for incitement on social media, but none of them against Jewish Israelis.

Erdan said that without the proposed law, the police would be helpless against criminals and terrorists. “This is not just about prostitution and drugs, but also incitement to terrorism. We need a comprehensive solution to fight those who spread hate and incite terrorism, because they do not have to reach out to mosques and schools if they can go online,” he said after the vote.