The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Sunday approved a bill for second and third Plenum readings, empowering the courts to order the removal of online content which constitutes an offense. The bill was merged with a similar, private bill sponsored by MK Revital Swid (Zionist Union).
The new bill creates a new enforcement tool authorizing the courts to issue a directive to instruct the removal of online content in cases in which there are two cumulative conditions: one, that a criminal offense has been committed by publicizing the content; and two, that there is a real possibility that the continued publication of the content will impair an individual’s security and public safety, or may inflict serious damage on the state’s economy or on critical infrastructures.
The proposed directive will apply to content that appears on social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, as well as to search engine providers like Google. In Google’s case, the court could instruct the search engine not to enable the presence of offensive content in search results. A quick procedure route was added to the bill on the initiative of Committee Chairman MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi), allowing for the immediate removal of content to prevent damage to the targets specified above.
The bill proposes that under these circumstances the court will preside and rule on the request to remove injurious content as early as possible, and no later than 48 hours. However, the court is entitled not to accept the decision within this period of time if it is not convinced that the immediate implementation of this directive is critical for the prevention of damage, or because a decision cannot be made within 48 hours for special reasons to be recorded.
During the committee debates, representatives of Israel’s State Prosecution explained that they currently contact the social media networks with requests to remove offensive materials on a voluntary basis according to their conditions of use, and reported that other government entities also contact social media networks. On the initiative of the Constitution Committee, and in order to increase the transparency and supervision of these contacts, it was decided to impose a detailed reporting obligation on said voluntary measures.
Chairman Slomiansky presented his “green route” initiative, saying, “I don’t want Facebook and Google to determine the limits of freedom of expression, which will establish what to monitor and what not to monitor, and on the other hand, I am not prepared to have a call for terror or murder remain online for two weeks until the court reaches a decision. Consequently, I reached an agreement with the Supreme Court President that if something irregular is publicized online and immediate removal thereof is required, the court will be compelled to complete its deliberations and issue a decision within 48 hours. This is an immediate route that constitutes an alternative to monitoring. We have tiptoed around this and found the interim route in order not to damage freedom of expression while focusing on terror and grave matters.”
MK Revital Swid (Zionist Union) requested to limit the fast-route proceeding strictly to incitement to terror, noting that “the bill should have applied solely to content constituting incitement to terror. The social media network has shown how it facilitates terror by individuals and I still think that the social media networks have the capacity to monitor and remove this content with their own initiative.”
MK Swid contacted representatives of government ministries and reported that “they were very cautious in their use of the law. They were careful not to impair freedom of expression, nor the right to protest and demonstration.”
Subsequently, Swid called on the online giants, saying: “In all that concerns incitement to terror, you have the power to impose limits. You are the first who can block things such as pornography and pedophilia. The law will not compel you, but civilians’ security should. Please do not force us to legislate once again.”
The legal advisor to the committee Attorney Gur Blai referred to the last corrections that were made in the bill’s wording, including for the annual report of the Constitution Committee, and said that “the report will also refer to the number of requests that the state submitted to companies for voluntary content removal, as well as the number of requests that were refused, and in the wake of which follow-up requests for a judicial directive were issued. We will also request a report as to the number of requests that were issued in the quick-route proceeding.”
Attorney Haim Vismonsky of the State Attorney’s Office commented “we understood that there is fear on the part of the committee that the law would be abused and government officials would take the name of security in vain to obtain the equivalent of censorship. On the other hand, we tried to examine which offenses are relevant to state security, but in practice not only security offenses represent a breach of state security. There are offenses such as Hamas’ fake phone messages for soldiers, and more. In view of this, we have reached an agreement that if we wish to submit requests based on offenses of libel, damaging religious sentiments, insulting a public official, and contempt of court, an approval of the highest echelon in the State Attorney’s Office will be required, which would be the State Attorney General or his deputy.”
Tova Even Chen, a candidate representing Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut LaKnesset party (Liberty, Purpose, Jewish Identity), told the committee: “I fear the restriction of political freedom of expression. We have never heard that anyone committed an act of libel and was requested to burn newspapers or return them to the shelves. This is a serious blow to freedom of expression.”