Israel’s Facebook Bill: An attack on Palestinian free speech
Late last year, the Israeli Ministerial Committee for Legislation unanimously approved the controversial Incitement on Social Media Bill. Israeli lawmakers claim the bill, dubbed the “Facebook Bill”, will allow the government to remove user-generated content they believe constitutes “incitement” or “causes harm” from social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
The bill goes further than any seen in other countries, and allows the Israeli authorities to not just remove content on social media, but also block content on all websites, including new-based platforms. It will allow the Israeli general attorney to use secret evidence in court to remove content, and prevent content creators from defending themselves and their work.
For Palestinians, the Facebook Bill will be used to silence activists and journalists reporting on Israeli human rights violations, as Israel’s vague laws surrounding incitement are already used to infringe on freedom of speech, and criminalise Palestinian journalists and activists who report on the ground and post online about Israeli violations.
Many question the need for such far-reaching and draconian legislation, when it’s clear that social media companies already voluntarily comply with the majority of content removal requests from the Israeli government’s Cyber Unit.
''The bill does not make a distinction between social media or news websites, for example, instead it subjects them all to the same regulations. The far-reaching ability to block news websites extends the censorship powers of the Israeli authorities, in a manner that goes beyond democratic principles regarding freedom of speech and diversity of opinion.''
Since 2022, the number of content takedown requests submitted by the Cyber Unit has grown by 800%. According to the Cyber Unit, the majority of posts were made on Facebook, with 87% of them already removed. Some 770 complaints were about posts on TikTok, with 84% of them being removed.
The bill is set to transform the relationship between the Israeli authorities and social media companies from one of voluntary compliance, to one with obligations to immediately remove content, or face legal proceedings.
Palestinians and their supporters have long been aware of biased content policies. Palestinian supermodel Bella Hadid has experienced account restrictions and content removals after posting about Palestine on Meta-owned Instagram. Other cases have included Facebook’s suspension of the page for Al Qastal, a Palestinian news outlet, and the removal of pages run by Palestinian journalists.
In May 2021, in the wake of mounting human rights violations on the ground, users reported that Instagram and Facebook removed hundreds of pieces of content related to Palestine, and likely thousands more went unreported. When these content removals were appealed, many were found not to have breached the platforms’ policies.
At the same time, there were 1,090,000 comments relating to Palestine on social media, and 183,000 instances of hate speech against Palestinians, which were allowed to remain. According to 7or - the Palestinian Observatory for Digital Rights Violations - during this period, Palestinian users reported over 1033 digital rights violations, including content removal and account suspensions.
Suppression of Palestinian content is so widespread that Facebook’s Oversight Board has recommended an independent investigation into the platform’s biased treatment of Arabic and Hebrew language content. The independent human rights monitoring body, BSR was commissioned by Meta to investigate its treatment of Palestinian content, however the investigation is still ongoing.
As demonstrated by Meta’s easing of hate speech rules for Ukrainians during the Russian invasion, social media companies are capable of recognising oppressed people’s right to free speech, especially when under attack, however, this right is not universally acknowledged for all marginalised people using the platform.
The Facebook Bill will make the disparity between Arabic and Hebrew content worse. The vague definition of ‘incitement to violence or terror’ within the legal language of the document will facilitate government censorship of any content which sheds light on the repressive policies of the Israeli authorities, shows human rights violations, or exposes violence by Israeli security forces, and many other forms of content that criticise Israel’s apparatus of control over Palestinians.
The legal mechanisms of the bill
The Facebook Bill lists two conditions where a content removal order may be issued. The first is that the publication of the content constitutes a criminal offence, and the second is that if the content were to remain online, it would pose a risk to personal safety, public safety or national security. These conditions are extremely broad, and vaguely defined within Israeli law.
In the West Bank and Gaza, “incitement” is defined by Israeli military law in broad terms, and includes any instance in which a person is believed to have attempted to influence public opinion in a manner that “could harm public safety or public order.” The Israeli military courts often use the “incitement offence” to bring legal proceedings against Palestinians who carry out acts such as putting up posters or writing slogans against the occupation.
Those who object to the state's policies and in particular during times of emergency, are the first to be harmed by the social media bill.
By requiring the content creator to go through complex legal proceedings that rely on secret evidence in order to defend their content, the Facebook Bill seeks to remove opportunities for citizens - who may not have the resources - to challenge the Israeli authorities’ decisions. This will have a further chilling effect on freedom of speech for Palestinians.
Court proceedings for Palestinians in Israel often rely on secret evidence, and often lead to indefinite administrative detention, with defendants not being granted the opportunity to review the evidence against them. The Facebook Bill amounts to a further means to intimidate Palestinians, and diminish spaces for freedom of expression.
Isolating the Israeli population from diversity of opinion
Another insidious aspect of the bill is the intention to block certain websites which do not comply with the restrictions. The bill does not make a distinction between social media or news websites, for example, instead it subjects them all to the same regulations. The far-reaching ability to block news websites extends the censorship powers of the Israeli authorities, in a manner that goes beyond democratic principles regarding freedom of speech and diversity of opinion.
In the context of Israel and Palestine, it is already clear from the ways in which journalists and activists are targeted on the ground, treated with violence and arrested for recording content or posting such content online, that freedom of speech is not a guaranteed right for Palestinians, and that the Israeli authorities have no intention to uphold such rights.
The lack of transparency in the process of developing this legislation and the vagueness of definitions for “incitement” means that the Facebook Bill is open for exploitation by the Israeli authorities.
At this year’s Palestine Digital Activism Forum (PDAF) hosted by 7amleh - the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, Palestinian activists, journalists, civil society and international organisations came together to discuss how to combat Israeli violations in the digital sphere, including the proposed Facebook Bill. During discussions with representatives from Meta’s human rights policy team, 7amleh asked for clarity on how Meta plans to deal with Israel’s Facebook Bill, and other similar repressive legislation from governments. Unfortunately, Meta was unable to give a definitive answer.
It’s clear that a strong, international effort is needed to raise the alarm about such draconian legislation as the Facebook Bill, and the wider, global implications for freedom of speech.
Nadim Nashif is a social entrepreneur and digital rights defender. He is the founder and executive director of 7amleh - The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, a Palestinian digital rights organisation. Nadim is also a senior policy analyst for Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. For the past 20 years, he has worked on community development issues.
Have questions or comments? Email us at: email@example.com
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.