Critics Fear Crackdown on Palestinian Free Speech as Israel Takes Aim at Facebook
Alex Kane, Intercept, Jul 28 2016
Two days after a Palestinian teen fatally stabbed an Israeli girl, an Israeli official blamed a Pindosi living thousands of miles away for the crime, as well as similar attacks. “Some of the victims’ blood is on Zuckerberg’s hands,” Gilad Erdan, Israel’s public security minister, said on Israeli television in early July. Erdan called Facebook a “monster” because it has become the platform of choice for Palestinians to denounce Israeli rule and broadcast their intention to attack Israelis. Muhammad Tarayra, the 17-year-old Palestinian behind the Jun 30 knife attack in Kiryat Arba, had written on Facebook that “death is a right and I demand my right.” He expressed anger that IOF had killed his cousin after, according to Israeli news reports, he had tried to run them down. Now, Israeli officials are seeking to pressure Facebook to take down posts similar to Tarayra’s. On Jul 13, Erdan and Ayelet Shaked submitted a bill to the Knesset that would empower courts to compel Facebook to remove content deemed violent. And amid Israel’s legislative push against Facebook, including a separate measure that would see Facebook fined if it did not remove content inciting people to terrorism, Shurat ha-Din has also filed suit against the social media company in a Pindosi court. The moves amount to a multi-pronged campaign aimed at Facebook, which has been increasingly drawn into the conflict. Israeli ministers have cast Facebook in the role of terror supporter, and now want to force the company to police Palestinian speech they say leads to violence. But Israeli laws against incitement have also been used to arrest Palestinians whose Facebook posts criticize Israeli rule but do not explicitly support violence. Yousef Jabareen, a Palestinian MK on the Joint Arab List, told The Intercept that the proposed bill would violate freedom of expression. He said:
We are afraid that, basically, such a law will be used to target legitimate critique against the occupation.
Facebook told Reuters:
We work regularly with safety organizations and policy-makers around the world, including Israel, to ensure that people know how to make safe use of Facebook. There is no room for content that promotes violence, direct threats, terrorist or hate speeches on our platform.
Israeli officials have been railing against Facebook since Oct 2015, when cases emerged of Palestinians stabbing Israelis as part of what some call the “knife intifada.” Shaked has met with Facebook officials to pressure them to take action against incitement. At a conference in Hungary in June, she said that Facebook, Twitter, and Google remove 70% of violent content in Israel. In 2015, Facebook took down 431 pieces of content that it said violated harassment laws or denied the Holocaust, which is against the law in Israel. And Facebook’s report on government requests shows that last year, Facebook handed over user data to Israeli authorities for about 60% of the 468 requests it received. Some of those requests pertain to Palestinians swept up in Israel’s dragnet targeting social media users who post messages against Israeli wars and occupation. As The Intercept reported, the Israeli police detained Sohaib Zahda, a Palestinian activist, in Aug 2014 after he wrote angry messages about an IOF commander on a Facebook page he ran. While he was in custody, the Israeli police sent an order to Facebook for data about Zahda’s page. The company complied, according to Zahda’s lawyer. Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation criticized Facebook for acceding to Israeli requests for user data, which she said does “not scrutinize them as carefully as we would like.” In a later interview, she added:
The state of Israel’s human rights record vis-a-vis Palestinians is not great. It’s incredibly troubling.
Israeli authorities want Facebook to do more. During his interview with Israeli news outlet Channel 2, Erdan complained that Facebook “sabotages” Israeli police work because it does not cooperate with requests pertaining to residents of the OPT. Facebook has also refused some requests for data on Palestinian citizens of Israel. In Oct 2015, when the Israeli police sent a legal order to Facebook requesting “all records” on and the IP address of Dareen Tatour, a citizen arrested for Facebook posts and a YouTube poem, Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, did not respond to the order, Tatour’s lawyer Abed Fahoum told The Intercept.
Screen grab of the “Free Dareen Tatour” Facebook page set up in response to the arrest of the Palestinian poet by Israeli police.
The bill pushed by Erdan and Shaked seeks to force Facebook to take down content that an Israeli court deems a threat to Israeli security, though Facebook would have the ability to appeal such an order. An Israeli prosecutor could introduce the state’s confidential information as part of a case seeking to take down a Facebook post. On Jul 17, the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which determines whether the ruling coalition will support a bill, approved a separate piece of legislation that would fine Internet companies $78k if they do not take down content deemed “incitement” within two days. The bill, which would require Facebook to monitor its own network for such content, easily passed a preliminary Knesset vote on Jul 20. Zionist Union MK Revital Swid, who introduced the bill, said:
I don’t think Facebook is responsible for terror or for the terror wave,” said. “But they can do a lot to prevent it.
Swid insists her proposed bill would not infringe on freedom of speech, and she would prefer that Facebook monitor and take down such postings voluntarily. “Telling someone to go and to do terror acts, that’s not freedom of speech,” said Swid, who explained that her legislation is narrowly tailored to focus on posts that call for terrorism. The campaign to pressure Facebook to censor its users has also made its way to Pindostan, where the company is headquartered. On Jul 11, Shurat ha-Din sued Facebook in Pindo federal court on behalf of the families of dual citizens killed by Palestinian attackers in Israel. A 2007 State Dept cable released by WikiLeaks quotes Nitsana Darshan-Leitner as saying that in its early years, Shurat ha-Din took direction from the Israeli government on what cases to file. She denies ever saying that to a Pindosi diplomat. The Shurat ha-Din lawsuit alleges that Facebook “knowingly” provided material support to Hamas, because Hamas has “used and relied on Facebook’s online social network platform and communications services” to carry out terrorism. Under Pindosi law, it is illegal to provide material support, including any service-like communications equipment, to a designated terrorist group. A Facebook spokesperson described the lawsuit as “without merit,” adding:
We have a set of Community Standards to help people understand what is allowed on Facebook, and we urge people to use our reporting tools if they find content that they believe violates our standards so we can investigate and take swift action.
Bob Tolchin, who is Pindosi counsel on this suit and frequently works with Shurat ha-Din, responded with some sneers:
Facebook, the all-Pindosi 21st-century billion-dollar social-media business, is providing the communications system and advertising system for this terrorist group, which to judge by their stated intent, is only too happy to kill and maim civilians.
Some observers think the suit against Facebook has a chance of advancing through the Pindosi court system. Writing on the blog Lawfare, Benjamin Wittes and Zoe Bedell said that Shurat ha-Din makes a strong case that Hamas’s use of Facebook, including posts calling for violence, helps cause militant action that has killed Israelis. But Aaron Mackey of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said:
The plaintiffs have a high legal barrier to clear, since the suit does not establish that Facebook helped cause the attacks, and the Communications Decency Act broadly immunizes Facebook from liability for content on its platform. If the lawsuit is successful, the consequences could be profound. It could lead to certain parts of the world being cut off from Facebook, or certain users’ posts being censored if they mention Hamas or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This lawsuit is part of a broader strategy, coupled with Israel’s push against incitement on Facebook and proposed Pindosi legislation requiring social media companies to report terrorist-related content to law enforcement. These small strategies are all part of a larger goal to force Facebook and Twitter to become the sort of active police for certain types of speech and content. But what that’s ultimately going to mean is less speech about things that these governments disagree with.