Blocking Access to Free Expression in Israel

A Knesset committee has approved for its final votes a benighted bill aimed at granting the government control over the content the public can be exposed to online

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The government’s efforts to limit freedom of expression and thought are continuing on all fronts. Two days ago the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved for its final votes a benighted bill aimed at granting the government control over the content the public can be exposed to online. Israel is thereby joining a list of non-democratic countries that limit unrestricted online surfing by their citizens, a list that includes China, North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The pretext for submitting this bill was the protection of state security and crime prevention.

According to the bill, a district court, acting on a request by police or state prosecutors, will be able to order Israeli internet providers to block access to certain websites or prevent their discovery in web searches. In cases where a website is stored on a server located in Israel, erasing the content of this website will also be permitted if it is established that the website deals with prostitution involving adults or minors, with child pornography, gambling, trafficking in drugs or other hazardous substances, or with terror activity.

In view of the courts’ willingness to accede almost completely to requests by state prosecutors and issue restrictive orders in the presence of only one side, and almost never expressing any doubts regarding such requests, this bill, if passed, will grant government agencies almost unlimited power to curtail the public’s ability to be exposed to content deemed “immoral” by government clerks or cabinet ministers. Although the pretext is the prevention of crime, the worry is that such draconian authority will lead to a slippery slope ending in government control of all online content.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has learned how to perform this trick: all that’s required is to intimidate the public with threats of terror on social media to gain support for any rapacious policies that grab her fancy. Following the present bill, a Facebook bill will no doubt also be presented, as well as a law restricting the usage by adults of online pornography.

The basic freedoms granted to every individual in a democracy are the reason criminal law is meant to punish retroactively and not deal with prevention. Every rule has its exceptions but the trend of legislation by the current government is increasing these exceptions, which then become part of the new legal reality. According to this reality, citizens do not benefit from complete freedom. Whereas the police and state prosecutors have tried to restrict freedom of expression and any physical protests in city squares over the last few months, the government, assisted by a coalition-controlled Knesset committee, is now trying to limit freedom of expression on the internet.