Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested shutting down social media in Israel during the initial days of the recent operation in the Gaza Strip.
The report about the prime minister’s suggestion was published Sunday in the Walla website and later in the day Haaretz’s Jonathan Lis and Netael Bandel added that the idea came directly from Netanyahu. They reported that Netanyahu raised it in at least two different meetings. It was rejected due to opposition by the attorney general, the Shin Bet security service and other defense officials.
But would this even be technically possible?
The answer is no. Not in Israel, and not right now.
The Israeli government could decide to turn off the switch, but currently, it techncailly can’t actually do that. The reason has nothing to do with Israel’s robust democracy but rather because Israel has no modern infrastructure for blocking websites. China, in contrast, has infrastructure in place on internet service providers that allows it to block sites with considerable effectiveness.
As Israelis living in China can tell you, most of the time, there’s no problem accessing Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube or any other site ostensibly off-limits to Chinese citizens, even if you’re logging on from a telephone with a picture of Mao in Tiananmen Square. All you need is a VPN program.
But when the Communist Party decides the political situation is especially sensitive, it fortifies the walls. And then, even the best VPN won’t help.
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Doing this requires very serious infrastructure, including technology known as deep packet inspection, which allows data traversing the web to be inspected in detail even when the volume of traffic is enormous. Something else that’s necessary is an updated list of IP addresses (that is, the addresses of both the social networks’ servers and commercial VPN services). Israeli ISPs simply don’t have any of this.
Creating such capabilities would require massive investment - both in time and in resources. Moreover, using such capabilities would deal a mortal blow to Israel’s high-tech industry.
Admittedly, websites are censored in Israel even today, generally at the request of the police, the army or ZIRA, an organization that vainly tries to fight piracy on the web by blocking file-sharing sites. As I’ve noted in the past, this is done through technology known as DNS blocking – an outdated system that allows only temporary blocked of websites by the internet providers.
A DNS server is what translates a domain name (for instance, Haaretz.com) into an IP address. If an ISP gets a court order, it can convert the domain name into a nonexistent IP address and thereby block the website.
This was very effective back in the 1990s, but it’s less effective now. Why? Because a good many international companies operate their own DNS servers, enabling them to change their DNS address into a foreign address, to which Israeli laws and restrictions don’t apply, with a single click.
If, like hundreds of thousands of other Israelis, you’ve changed your definitions to view the popular albeit illegal streaming site Sdarot (which offers subtitled versions of popular shows), you’ve presumably never even noticed this censorship. Definitions can similarly be changed on your cellphone’s browser (on Android) and thus sites like these evade take down orders.
But what if the government were to force ISPs to install advanced censorship tools?
Here, too, a simple technical solution exists to circumvent them. Users can protect themselves with a VPN service, which requires nothing more than installing and running the software on your computer or cellphone.
And if Israel were to start blocking well-known VPNs? Solutions exist for that, too, but they’re a bit more complicated. And it would be much better for us to never reach that point, since if Chinese-style censorship were applied here, even for a very short time, we would no longer have a high-tech industry, with all the attendant consequences.
Admittedly, China’s high-tech industry has benefited from its blocking of apps like Facebook and Twitter, by offering alternative ones like WeChat instead. But Israel isn’t China. And one of our high-tech industry’s competitive advantages is its connection to the rest of the world - not the existence of a massive local market. Many companies wouldn’t want to continue investing in a country that might cut off their communication with their employees.
And perhaps our leaders ought to realize that however much they might wish otherwise, the 1990s are gone, and a modern country can’t block websites – especially not social networks.