Unlike Trump, Israeli Politicians Are Free to Block Twitter Users

Public servants from Netanyahu on down often bar critics from following them on social media, and Israeli law offers the critics little recourse

Netanyahu in a Knesset meeting in Jerusalem, July 7, 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Around two years ago, Uri Keidar found himself blocked from the Twitter account of Naftali Bennett, then the minister of education.

Keidar, the executive director of the religious pluralism and civil rights organization Israel Hofsheet — Be Free Israel, doesn’t recall exactly why he was blocked.

“I guess it was for some kind of criticism. I’m sure there were no obscenities,” he said. “As long as people don’t use abusive language, blocking access isn’t a legitimate tool for public figures.”

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But in fact, blocking users on social media is nothing new in Israel. Those who do it and those who support the practice say it’s a defense against violent language and inflammatory remarks and that it facilitates discussion.

Critics say it’s unfair for politicians who use social media, often at taxpayer expense, to block certain users, but no one has gone so as far as turning to the courts or the Knesset to take steps to end the practice.

Yoram Hacohen, a lawyer who is the CEO of the Israel Internet Association, said the government should intervene to curtail the practice.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too, bypassing the traditional media by communicating directly with the public through Twitter and Facebook and also preventing people from criticizing you. That said, there are legitimate reasons to block posts when they violate privacy or are inflammatory, racist and so forth,” Hacohen said.

The issue received heightened attention this week after a U.S. federal appeals court in New York ruled that President Donald Trump had violated the Constitution by blocking from his Twitter account people whose views he disliked.

“The First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees,” wrote Judge Barrington Parker of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Trump has made his @RealDonaldTrump Twitter account, which he opened in 2009, a central and controversial part of his presidency, using it to promote his agenda and to attack critics. His blocking of critics was challenged by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, as well as seven Twitter users to whom he had denied access.

The court said that its ruling did not apply to private accounts but noted that the president had used his account for official purposes.

In Israel blocking is frequently done by Knesset members, cabinet ministers and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many of them do it a lot. Often it is due to abusive language, but often it comes after a user has criticized the owners of the Twitter account.

Two years ago, freelance journalist Tomer Avital found that the politicians who blocked access most often were Netanyahu and Yair Lapid, then the head of the Yesh Atid party and now the No. 2 candidate on the Kahol Lavan election slate.

As those two names suggest, the practice of denying access cuts across party and ideological lines. Other big blockers were Public Security Minister and senior Likud party figure Gilad Erdan, former Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Labor Party MK Shelly Yacimovich.

In a few instances, Israeli courts have addressed the matter on a case-by-case basis. Last year, Hadera and Mayor Zvi Gendelman agreed as part of settling a lawsuit to stop blocking users from their city and personal Facebook accounts.

In another case, the social activist Yossi Saidov and the Hebrew University’s Digital Rights Clinic successfully appealed to then-Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to unblock Saidov from the minister’s Facebook account.

But experts have noted that Israeli and U.S. laws regarding freedom of speech are not the same. “In the United States, freedom of expression is the highest value,” said Hacohen. “In Israel, as in Europe, there’s a balance between other rights, such as privacy, and freedom of expression and sometimes they clash.”

Israel’s State Comptroller’s Office has also weighed in on the issue after receiving complaints from the public about the practice of blocking users on social media. In a 2017 report, the comptroller said that “refusing to allow a person to respond on an official Facebook page of a public figure or removing posted responses are acts that violate freedom of expression.”

On the other hand, the report stressed that in cases in which posts include foul, racist or inflammatory language, there is no reason not to remove posts.

As for accounts operated with the use of public funds, including those managed in the name of officeholders, the comptroller recommended that they publicize their policies on blocking on their Facebook pages, including measured steps such as issuing a warning before a user is blocked or barring their access for a limited period of time.

Two years ago Yoel Hasson, who was then a Knesset member, led an effort to create an ethical code for lawmakers to ensure access is maintained fairly on all social networks.

Yehonatan Klinger, who advises the Digital Rights Clinic, drew up social media standards he hoped public figures would adopt. “Those standards, and other, similar ones, were adopted by very few politicians,” he said.

“We need to ban blocking except in clear cases and that’s not only for the sake of freedom of expression but because blocking is done to stop dialogue. In other words, an MK seeks to block opinions he doesn’t share. An MK doesn’t have that right.”