Keep the Internet Free

Israel's 'Facebook Law' would deal a mortal blow to freedom of expression and has no place in a democratic country

An illustration picture shows a person posing during a photo session showing the social platform Facebook logo reflected in the pupil of an eye on April 25, 2018, in Paris.
AFP PHOTO / Christophe SIMON

After two and a half years of discussions, the Knesset is expected to pass the so-called Facebook Law this week. The bill’s sponsors, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, want the government’s counterterror arsenal to include the ability to censor the internet and to have quick access for the purpose of removing content from social media. The law would empower the police and the State Prosecutor’s Office to obtain court injunctions ordering content providers (such as Google, Facebook or Twitter) to remove content that constitutes a criminal offense, from insulting a civil servant to the commission of fraud, even in the absence of imminent — or any — danger to human life.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

According to the bill, all that would be required for an injunction ordering the removal of content from the internet would be for a district court judge to be persuaded that its publication poses a concrete danger to personal or national security, the national economy or vital infrastructure and thus constitutes a crime. But “public security” is an overly general definition that could be put to wholesale use: Does a protest vigil or an unlicensed demonstration fall under this category? There certainly are plenty of people in the government who believe that posts by B’Tselem or Breaking the Silence harm the country. Shaked and Erdan have arranged for themselves a tool they can use to silence anyone who is not to their liking.

For the determination to be made that a criminal offense has been committed, an investigation must be carried out. But the demand that the content be removed immediately does not allow for such an investigation. Moreover, the law states that in making a ruling, the judge can rely on evidence that would not be admissible in court. The law will turn the authorities into censors of the internet and give them the ability to submit a one-sided presentation to the court, citing classified evidence as well as evidence that is inadmissible in court.

No democratic country has a law like this. Countries like France, Britain and Germany have passed laws to address incitement to terrorism, publication of hate material and serious crimes like child pornography and pedophilia online. These countries have focused legislation on crimes that pose imminent danger to human life. Israel is the only country whose elected officials want to unilaterally deal with every violation in the penal code.

The internet was made to be free, and for three decades now has been enabling people to express their opinions. Those who exploit it to post content that endangers lives must be fought, but violations of privacy or harming national security are not equivalent to insulting a civil servant. The present bill would deal a mortal blow to freedom of expression and has no place in a democratic country.

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