LONDON: Israeli authorities are preparing to pass a controversial Incitement on Social Media Bill, commonly known as the “Facebook bill,” in a move that threatens to escalate online censorship during heightened tensions with Palestinians.
The bill, which allows the Israeli government to remove content they believe constitutes “incitement” or “causes harm” from social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, goes further than similar laws seen elsewhere.
It allows the Israeli authorities to block content on all websites, including news sites, subjecting them to the same regulations as social media platforms.
It will also grant the Israeli general attorney the power to use secret evidence in court to remove content, and prevent content creators from defending themselves and their work.
“This bill poses a serious threat to freedom of expression and information for Palestinians who are already the main targets of censorship by the Israeli government in regards to political and social content and gives greater power to repress Palestinian voices and censor opinions of Palestinians and those sympathetic to the cause in a greater way than ever before, Nadim Nashif, founder and director of digital rights organization 7amleh, told Arab News. “Citizens and residents may also apply excessive self-censorship in fear that their views will expose them to legal proceedings vis-à-vis the state and media companies.
“This is an unprecedented infringement on freedom of expression,” said one social media user.
Another called out Israel’s hypocrisy, saying that: “If they had nothing to hide they wouldn’t take such drastic measures.”
The Israeli Ministerial Committee for Legislation unanimously approved the bill in December last year, a move that experts believe will transform the relationship between Israeli authorities and social media platforms.
“The ability to label anything as 'inceitement to violence or terror' opens the door to government censorship of any content which exposes repressive policies on the part of the authorities, presents evidence of human rights violations, exposes violence by Israeli security forces etc. The relationship between the Israeli government, and social media platforms will change after the enforcement of the law, from voluntary relationship to an obligatory one, where they will be forced by court law to take down any and all content by Israeli request.”
While passing this bill constitutes a severe blow to Palestinian’s freedom of speech, it is not new nor uncommon.
During last year’s attacks on Gaza, Facebook and Instagram removed hundreds of posts related to Palestine. 7amleh documented more than 700 cases of Palestinian digital rights violations, of which 500 cases took place between May 6-19 alone.
“While there has been a steadily growing trend of censorship of Palestinian content especially over the past two years, this new law will give un-regulated power to the Israeli government to freely censor any organization and individual that they see fit. ” Nashif added.
At the time, Facebook claimed the issue was technical rather than political, pointing out that during the recent conflict, the tech giant dedicated a whole team, including both Arabic and Hebrew speakers, to monitor the situation on the ground and remove harmful content.
However, while 7amleh found the efforts by social media to limit future violations of users’ digital rights were significant, it claimed such efforts did not go far enough.