Israel considers laws to hold social media giants accountable for inciting users

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Silhouettes of mobile users are seen alongside a screen projection of the Instagram logo in this photo illustration taken on March 28, 2018. REUTERS / Dado Ruvic / Illustration

A team of experts working for the Israeli Ministry of Communications take into account new laws that would hold social media companies accountable for incentives posted by users on their platforms. While newspapers and TV networks have long been responsible for this content, it is a potentially dramatic development for social media giants.

The discussion takes place against a background of Human Rights Watch Report who claimed that Israel and Facebook had colluded to “silence” Palestinian voices on human rights issues. It also immediately follows a shattering paradigm Special “60 minutes” which featured Facebook “whistleblower” Frances Haugen, who accused Facebook’s leadership “prefers profits to safety. “

Indeed, it is not just about the Jewish state – for whatever course the Israeli commission sets out, it will have a significant impact on the entire Western world, as the decision is to change the global landscape. social media.

Silencing Palestinian voices?

The Human Rights Watch report criticized Facebook’s deletion of “hundreds” of messages from Palestinians, but did not provide an accurate overview of the content that was deleted.

For example, a post not only encouraged Palestinians to stab Jews to death, but also offered specific instructions on how to do this, including anatomical charts identifying the most vulnerable body parts.

Another message encouraged people to brutally butcher the Jews, graphically depicting a bloody scene as an act of religious heroism.

A large number of similar posts were the source of a wave of anti-Jewish violence in 2015-2016, known during the “Knife Intifada”. Palestinians, usually armed only with a knife, along with the know-how and motivation from social media, murdered 38 Israelis (including 31 civilians) and 558 wounded.

Last May, a massive online incitement prompted Palestinians to organize violent riots in Israel. This was used by Hamas as a pretext to start a generalized conflict, during which terrorist groups designated by the United States launched nearly 4,500 rockets at Israel, with hundreds of them misfiring and, as a result, also killing Gazans.

None of these critical details were picked up in the Human Rights Watch report.

What the law says?

Incitement has never been viewed as “free speech” – neither in Israel, nor in the United States, nor in any modern liberal democracy.

The American case Brandenburg v. Ohio sets out three criteria that a speech must meet in order to be legally qualified as “incitement”.

  1. The speaker must advocate directly for a crime to be committed;
  2. The crime must constitute an “imminent” threat; and
  3. It must be “probable” that the crime is committed by someone.

In short, it is not enough to offend or disagree with an individual. It is not even enough to make vague threats. On the contrary, incitement is speech that has a high probability of causing someone to commit a crime almost immediately.

This is a high legal standard and intentionally, as it is designed to protect freedom of expression while balancing the need to maintain public safety.

Article 230

Incentive laws apply to newspapers, television and all manner of conventional media, which begs the question: why aren’t social media companies already being held accountable for what is written on their websites? platforms?

The answer is because of a law known as Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act 1996. Adopted when widespread use of the Internet was still in its infancy, this law aimed to promote growth by releasing Internet service providers from any liability for content published on their sites by third parties.

In other words, your cable company, cell phone provider, and even your local cafe (with its free Wi-Fi) can’t be sued because of what their customers say or write online.

However, Section 230 was passed years before the advent of social media platforms, which offer the owner much more control and involvement in content creation than an infrastructure provider. Nevertheless, the courts applied article 230 to various websites, even as they have become more and more interactive.

In one notorious case, a site called Backpage.com was protected from liability despite allowing its users to engage in sex trafficking. The case resulted in new laws being passed to specifically address the problem of online sex trafficking, but this left section 230 largely untouched. The tendency to apply Section 230 widely has helped create our current reality – a reality in which today’s social media titans enjoy the same protections as the early Internet providers, although they are much more committed to it. user content compared to a typical cable or cell phone company. .

Today there is important debate on whether Section 230 should be amended or even repealed at a time when social media companies are monetizing user-generated content.

The whistler

In this context, “60 Minutes” featured Facebook “whistleblower” Frances Haugen, who argued that Facebook “prefers profits to safety. “According to Haugen, if the incitement brings more traffic and therefore more profits to Facebook, the company will generally tend to allow it, even if it leads to violence or even murder.

In a vacuum, this is a completely rational (albeit somewhat unpleasant) decision for a company that responds to markets and shareholders – which is precisely why countries have laws. It is the role of government to balance the incentives of capitalism with our social responsibility to live together in a reasonably safe environment.

Likewise, a profit-driven company will work diligently to prevent the incentive if its executives and shareholders know that the company can be held financially (and possibly even criminally) responsible for the results.

Israel at the top of the world

We frequently see Israel taking action slightly ahead of the rest of the world. The small country pioneered much of the modern science behind counterterrorism; has developed a huge high-tech sector; and, more recently, performed a national deployment of the coronavirus vaccine well ahead of most, if not all, of the rest of the world.

In this way, Israel is sometimes a kind of “laboratory” that indicates what might happen next: the rest of the globe “peeks into the future.” As a modern liberal democracy, with a diverse population and strong free speech laws, Israel is a model that can be examined and emulated by other nations, including the United States.

The social media incitement, while affecting many countries, has had a disproportionately negative impact on Israel by directly causing injuries and deaths in recent years alone. Israel’s discussions on the liability of social media companies will almost certainly have an impact on the US debate on Section 230, as well as similar debates in countries around the world.

If Israel properly implements its legal changes and manages to save lives without hampering free speech or business growth, then it can be seen as the standard bearer for a safer and better world.

The author is the CEO of HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog that focuses on anti-Semitism and anti-Israel prejudice – where a version of this article first appearance.


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