A Dangerous, Senseless Law

The Knesset is trying to advance a bill that would block pornography and gambling sites as the default, yet the proposed law would be a costly 'solution' that lacks any technological feasibility

A new law proposed by the Knesset would require internet service providers to block pornography and gambling sites as the default.

For 10 years, various MKs have been trying to pass an anti-pornography law that will restrict people’s exposure to online pornography. This time around it is MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli of Habayit Hayehudi and MK Miki Zohar of Likud, with the support of 20 other coalition and opposition members. They are trying to advance a bill that would require internet service providers to block pornography and gambling sites as the default; anyone wanting to enter those sites could do so only by keying in a code.

The bill’s sponsors want to protect minors from being exposed to pornography. But the bill creates problems of implementation on the one hand and undermines freedom of expression on the other. First of all, who will decide what constitutes pornography? During the last Knesset debate on the bill, it was even proposed that anytime someone searches for the terms “sex” or “gambling,” a site will appear that will require a password to enter.

The effort to dump responsibility for content oversight on internet service providers (ISPs)– companies with commercial interests that don’t dovetail with those of parents – is likely to be pointless. The bill ignores the fact that companies which spend millions of dollars to fight pedophilia, for example, have a hard time distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate content. These problems come in addition to the realistic assumption that consumers will have to foot the bill for this filtering.

Moreover, the Justice Ministry has warned that the ISPs could put together blacklists of people who watch this content, which would essentially facilitate surveillance of users. This law would enable the creation of a list of all pornography consumers in Israel.

The possibility that the state, and not the ISPs, could censor the internet and decide which content is worthy of viewing – or issue pornography consumption permits to residents – is a bad idea and would give the state the power to undermine consumer freedom, which is a crucial characteristic of the internet. It could also enable the state to freely spy on residents.

This law is a superficial attempt to deal with a complex problem. Instead of parents and educators teaching children how to navigate the internet wisely, lawmakers want to make commercial companies responsible for protecting Israel’s children from harmful internet content, or, alternatively, to become the national censors.

But above all, this legislation would be ineffective. Web content obstructions are easily bypassed, even without technical knowledge, and in any case a great deal of pornography isn’t distributed via websites, but through WhatsApp or Instagram. This would be a costly “solution” that lacks any technological feasibility.

There is room for regulating the internet and the state mustn’t treat it as a foreign, frightening world. But sweeping and unreliable blockages, which will lead almost incidentally to creating databases of those who insist on resisting them, are not the right way.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.