Israel's 'Facebook Bill' Is a Serious Threat to Freedom of Expression

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People are silhouetted as they pose with laptops in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo.
People are silhouetted as they pose with laptops in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo.Credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

The nickname “Facebook Law,” which has been given to a bill to prevent incitement on social media, is misleading and dangerous. It obscures fundamental flaws in the bill, which was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation Monday night in preparation for the first of three required Knesset votes.

First, the bill would allow district court judges to remove posts not just from Facebook, and not even just from all social media outlets, as its official name implies, but from any website at all. Second, in addition to defining the crime, the bill includes vague considerations about possible harm to “an individual’s safety,” “public safety” and “national security.” These are very broad terms that are open to different interpretations, frequently political ones. And as both military censorship and judicial gag orders have proven, despite the standard of “near certainty” set by the High Court of Justice, in the vast majority of cases judges approve requests of this type almost automatically, in ex parte hearings and with the evidence heard on camera – practices the current bill would also allow.

Third, the bill also drags internet service providers into this mess, as they may be asked to block access in Israel to content that websites don’t agree to remove. Big technology conglomerates like Facebook do indeed pose significant social and political challenges for democracy in the digital age. But even today, it’s possible to file lawsuits or criminal charges if online posts violate elements of the penal code, such as the laws against libel and incitement.

The bill is far-reaching and draconian in its implications for freedom of expression. It grants the authorities unprecedented and disproportionate tools for imposing government censorship. In many countries, such as India and the Philippines, similar laws that originally purported to regulate social media are now being used to persecute journalists and human rights organizations. This is what happened, for instance, to journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, who was jailed under the provisions of new internet laws. Israeli law also enables content on news websites to be removed or blocked – a practice that should have disappeared together with the Press Ordinance instituted by the British Mandate almost a century ago.

The bill now being promoted by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar isn’t new. It was also initially promoted by the previous government, but then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ultimately decided to shelve it because of his growing use of social media for his own political purposes.

Nevertheless, the division into blocs that has emerged over this bill, solely because of Netanyahu’s position on it, is narrow-minded and dangerous and prevents sober consideration of its provisions, which will affect freedom of the press in Israel for generations. To mitigate the damage, it’s necessary to significantly restrict the law’s applicability, in terms of both the websites it applies to and the types of offenses it covers, and also to bar ex parte hearings in which the evidence is heard on camera.

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

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