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NGO says Israel's censoring of online content 'has no legal basis'

Sept. 17, 2017 7:45 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 4, 2017 7:04 P.M.)
(File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has called on Israel to shut down its so-called Cyber Unit, which collaborates with social media platforms to censor content, saying the unit has “no legal authority.”

The Israeli government launched the unit in the second half of 2015, when Israeli authorities alleged that a wave of unrest that erupted that fall was encouraged largely by online "incitement." The crackdown has seen hundreds of Palestinians detained, while social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have complied with hundreds of requests by the Israeli state to censor content.

According to Adalah, the Cyber Unit says it is responsible for "dealing with cyberspace enforcement challenges" via censorship of social media posts and entails the removal of content added by users, restriction of access to certain websites, and outright blocking of users' access to these sites.

Adalah said it sent a letter to Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, State Attorney Shai Nitzan, and Cyber Unit director Haim Vismonsky, “demanding that they immediately cease the illegal operations of the state attorney's Cyber Unit,” arguing that much of the censorship has been conducted without any basis in Israeli law.

"Nothing in the law allows state authorities to censor content based solely on an administrative determination… that the content amounts to a criminal offense. Likewise, there is no explicit directive in (Israeli) law authorizing the removal of content determined to amount to a criminal offense, even by a court," Adalah Attorney Fady Khoury wrote. 

Adalah cited statistics released by the Cyber Unit in its end-of-year 2016 report, that said the Israeli agency handled 2,241 cases of online content that were ostensibly posted in violation of the law; 1,554 of these were removed as a result of the unit's operations. 

“While private bodies such as social media corporations are not subject to Israeli public law and therefore may lawfully choose to remove content in accordance with their terms of service, state agents -- such as the Cyber Unit -- are indeed subject to Israeli law and much of their censorship activities are therefore illegal,” Adalah emphasized. 

Khoury also stressed that the Cyber Unit operations are a clear violation of free speech, explaining that the Israeli state attorney’s practice of criminalizing certain expression on social media is tantamount to “an unproven suspicion.” 

"The Cyber Unit cannot impose sanctions based solely on this suspicion, let alone severe sanctions in the form of censorship. The authorities are not allowed to demand the removal of speech that has not yet been proven to be criminal, even if it is unpleasant to their ears,” the Adalah attorney said in the report.

He explained that, “When the Cyber Unit appeals to a service provider with a request to censor content based on its suspicion that the concerned content is expression forbidden by law and without a final (judicial) ruling in the matter, this constitutes an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech." 

Adalah also noted that Cyber Unit operations are a violation of the principle of separation of powers: "The pretense of deciding upon the criminalization of expression, without appealing to the court or conducting any legal proceeding -- and upon this basis determine censorship sanctions -- impinges upon and supplants judicial authority and leads to the infringement of the principle of separation of powers,” the letter said.

Adalah concluded that because “Cyber Unit clerks and administrative officials decide for themselves” whether or not expression is “incitement to violence and terror, and support of a terror organization,” the state attorney is usurping judicial authority “illegally and without any legal authorization." 

“Adalah demands that the Israeli attorney general, state attorney, and Cyber Unit halt all internet content censorship activities using the "alternative enforcement system" operated by the state attorney's Cyber Unit,” the report stressed.

The same day Adalah published its report, Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post reported that Cyber Unit does not keep any record of the cases it pursues with Google and Facebook.

The Israeli justice ministry told the outlet that, “As a rule we do not keep the content we work to have removed,” without providing an explanation for the lack of record keeping.

Adalah told The Jerusalem Post that the ministry’s refusal “pointed up secrecy and a lack of transparency and accountability in the government body.”

The crackdown on social media activity also came as a bill introduced by Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked seeks to allow Israeli officials to force Facebook to censor certain content deemed to be “incitement” -- but only when it is made by Palestinians against Israelis, according to rights groups.

The law has moved through the Knesset despite the fact that Facebook already complies with at least 78 percent of Israel’s requests to delete content or suspend accounts.

A report released by the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement 7amleh further documented that slanderous, provocative, and threatening posts made by Israelis against Arabs and Palestinians more than doubled in 2016, reaching 675,000 posts made by 60,000 Hebrew-speaking Facebook users -- with only very few cases being opened against Israelis.
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