Facebook blocked the WhatsApp accounts of at least 30 people in Israel this week, including that of the leader of a far-right Jewish extremist group called Lehava and the wife of a Kahanist lawmaker, who is now taking legal action the social media platform.
Suggestions were made that the state was behind this move, but Haaretz has learned that no official request to block accounts was made by the authorities to Facebook, raising the question: Why were the accounts blocked?
The AP reported accounts in Gaza were also taken down this week for unknown reasons and without explanation.
Blocking WhatsApp accounts is a rare move undertaken by Facebook. The reason for this is that the content flowing through its software is encrypted, meaning that the company has no access to it and cannot know whether messages’ content breach its regulations.
Last Wednesday, 24 hours before a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel was declared, access to 30 accounts of right-wing activists was blocked, including that of the chairman of the radical anti-assimilation group Lehava, Bentzi Gopstein, as well as the account of Ayala Ben-Gvir, the wife of radical lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir (Religious Zionism). They claim that they were permanently suspended from WhatsApp with no prior warning or explanation given.
MK Ben-Gvir filed a police complaint against the head of Facebook Israel, Adi Soffer Teeni, and Jordana Cutler, Facebook Israel's head of policy and Jewish Diaspora. The lawmaker is alleging illegal wiretapping on the part of Facebook. He claims the take down is a form of political persecution and an attempt to silence right-wing voices in Israel. “It is unacceptable that Facebook will read out messages via WhatsApp and use them for political persecution,” he wrote on Twitter.
In a letter sent to Facebook Israel, his lawyer demanded the accounts be reinstated. The letter said blocking the accounts was a violation of privacy rights and that as a monopoly on a key communication platform, Facebook is legally barred from preventing people from participating in it without prior notice.
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A digital whodunit
Since Facebook is not transparent, it’s impossible to know what caused the company to take this measure. Facebook’s official reaction was that the company does not divulge information regarding private accounts, and that the blocking of access to WhatsApp accounts is only done in cases of non-compliance with company policies or following a violation of the law.
Over the last two weeks, on the backdrop of the violence in East Jerusalem and the outbreak of hostilities with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, dozens of new groups appeared on WhatsApp and Telegram. There, incitement against both Arabs and Jews ran rampant. These groups also invited people to violent demonstrations and urged them come with makeshift weapons with the intent of assaulting citizens from other communities.On Telegram, there is no one to turn to regarding such calls for violence on its platform. WhatsApp does have such an arbitrator – Facebook.
According to the non-profit group Fake Reporter, an organization devoted to the uncovering of online incitement and tracking disinformation in Hebrew, at the beginning of fighting, between May 12 and 14, Lehava activists got together through WhatsApp, planning violent actions in mixed Arab-Jewish cities.
As part of the correspondence uncovered by Fake Reporter, a demonstration was organized in the central city of Bat Yam using WhatsApp, a demonstration which later deteriorated into violence and ended with a mob attack against an Arab passerby. Investigators discovered correspondence relating to the collection of money for the purchase of spray cans used for defensive purposes, as well as content advocating violence. Was this the reason for blocking these accounts? The answer is – we don’t know.
“There is no transparency, not on the part of Facebook and not as to whether official authorities are involved – we just don’t know,” explains Prof. Michael Birnhak, an expert on law and technology from the Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University. “Transparency by Facebook is needed so that the company can explain what happened, whether they received complaints, what was done in practice and what were the reasons for blocking these accounts. Was there a court order, were there complaints by other users who were exposed to violent content?”
The lack of transparency around the removal of online content by companies such as Facebook, which now control public discourse, is a serious problem, says Birnhak. “This is emblematic of Facebook’s immense power vis-à-vis its users. In the past, discussions of freedom of expression were held between citizens and the state. But over the last decade, public discourse has moved to the arena of private companies, where there is no juridical oversight; there is only the sole power wielded by Facebook, which is the legislator, executor and judge,” says Birnhak.
What could lead to the blocking of an account?
Due to the lack of transparency, one can only speculate about what really led to the suspension of the accounts. In order to do this, one should understand how such a block can be enacted.
1. One source which can lead to blocking an account is the State Attorney’s office. There is only one official agency in Israel that deals with content provider companies, the cyber department at the State Attorney’s office at the Justice Ministry.
A month ago, the High Court of Justice ruled that this department can continue to independently turn to companies like Facebook regarding the blocking or removal of content or users who operate in contravention of the law. In Israel there is a policy of “voluntary enforcement.” This involves the cooperation of this department with content providers such as Google, Twitter or Facebook, in which the state can request the removal of illegal content. These companies examine the request and usually remove the content. According to a report by a Palestinian digital rights groups published prior this round of fighting, in the past Facebook accepted roughly 80 percent of Israel’s take down requests.
In the current case, it is possible that enforcement authorities received complaints about the wild incitement taking place on social media, an issue that was covered by the New York Times. However, after Haaretz asked the Justice Ministry for a response, it was told that the ministry dot not file any new requests - and thus are not involved in blocking these 30 accounts. “Without relating to any specific account, the cyber department at the State Attorney’s office did not request the blocking of WhatsApp accounts from the time Operation Guardian of the Walls began and up to now,” said department officials.
2. Another possible player is the Shin Bet security service. Over the two weeks of hostilities, the Shin Bet monitored violent activity on social media and through instant messaging. The intelligence service operates covertly, obviously, but knowledgeable sources claim that it is not involved in blocking these accounts either. These sources add that the service is not directly connected with Facebook or in contact with them, and if there is content related to terror, the Shin Bet informs state authorities, which deals with the content through the Justice Ministry.
3. Another possibility is that this was a decision taken by Facebook. “Facebook cannot see the content of WhatsApp conversations and it has no authority to investigate its users. It may have received reports through Fake Reporter regarding what was happening in those groups. Alternatively, someone in these groups may have marked such content and reported it to Facebook,” says Birnhak.
“These are American commercial companies. If they wish to, they’ll comply with Israeli law, but they ‘re not obliged to, and we’re dependent on the favors of these public platforms,” adds Birnhak. “The whole topic of moderating is a blurry one to begin with, and there is still violent and inciting content on these platforms which is not taken off. There are no clear criteria. From the little that is known, the monitoring of content is often done in third countries which have no Hebrew speakers, with employees using Google Translate.”
“Sometimes algorithms are used and no one knows how they work, and that’s a real problem. The volume of content on these platforms is huge, and obviously, humans can’t go over it all in advance. When they encounter violent content retroactively, it’s with a delay and after the investment of much energy. This is a Golem which has risen against its creator, Facebook. The price is paid by Israeli society and the discourse coursing through it,” concludes Birnhak.