Israel’s parliament approved a bill that would allow authorities to remove certain posts supporting illegal social media activity during a preliminary reading on December 8. During the heated debate in the Knesset, Opposition Speaker Benjamin Netanyahu knocked on the table and hissed: “I want to tell you how absurd and dangerous this is. Have you forgotten that we are a democracy? It is terribly dangerous.
“It is a law to silence those of us right-wingers,” religious Zionist President Bezalel Smotrich added. “First you took control of most of Israel’s institutionalized media, now you want to become the censors of social media – which is the only place the right, the state’s Zionist national camp, can stand. express freely – now you want to stifle that too much.… You will call anything we say incitement or violence.
Knesset member Meir Yitzhak Halevi, who introduced the bill, is leading the lobby for the eradication of violence in social media. He is also a member of the New Hope Party, created by Justice Minister Gideon Saar, who is one of Netanyahu’s bitter enemies. This fact, of course, added to the feeling of persecution of the former prime minister and the entire right-wing camp.
The legislation, dubbed “the Facebook Law,” is a new version of a bill Netanyahu blocked in 2018 when he was prime minister. Two of his ministers at the time submitted it: then justice minister Ayelet Shaked and then public security minister Gilad Erdan. Netanyahu argued that the bill interfered with free speech and was able to block it due to his control of the political system.
Now, more than three years later, a weakened opposition Netanyahu is forced to renew his war on the law.
Under the proposal, a judge could order a website to remove specific content from the Internet in the following circumstances: if the judge is convinced that a criminal offense has been committed through the posting of the content; or if the judge finds that the publication almost certainly endangers a person’s mental health.
The bill is controversial because of its vague wording. In addition, it gives absolute power to judges to determine what “freedom of expression” is.
According to the explanation of the bill: “There are those who take advantage of the Internet to commit crimes, such as: advertising involving incitement to violence and sexual crimes; advertising involving unjustified invasion of a person’s privacy; advertising that violates or embarrasses a person’s dignity… Efforts to eradicate this kind of phenomenon cross all borders, requiring cooperation between governments which have different legal approaches and methods. The State of Israel has also had to deal with this phenomenon recently, necessitating an expansion of the legal tools to deal with it.
Netanyahu has created a multimedia empire in recent years. He has active accounts with millions of followers on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and TikTok. It is not only a matter of communication, but also part of his campaign of several years. Netanyahu claims the mainstream media are against him, but he maintains a direct, daily dialogue with his supporters via social media.
Therefore, immediately after the bill was passed, Netanyahu launched an aggressive social media campaign. In addition to short Hebrew videos, he has also broadcast some in English in which he warns of blows to Israeli democracy. Millions of followers, inside and outside of Israel, are exposed to it.
In a video clip of his Knesset speech, Netanyahu is heard saying, “Social networks are the only space left, where the right still enjoys freedom of expression against the media, which are at the service of the left. But just as we don’t send judges to eavesdrop on every conversation between two people, we also don’t need to send a judge to censor social media. Because to strike a blow to the freedom of expression on the social networks is a mortal blow for the democracy.
In another Twitter post, Netanyahu said in English: “The current government has done something amazing today. They passed first reading of a bill in the Knesset that would censor the internet and private citizens. I’m not sure there is another democratic government in the world that does something so undemocratic… The Bennett-Lapid government is seeks to censor social networks, which are today the public square, the only place where the right still has freedom of expression.
“Netanyahu has absolute control over social media, and this bill could hurt his marketing strategy,” digital strategist Itay Tsamir told Al-Monitor. “When its space for action is reduced, its ability to maximize its media power is reduced. That is why he is shouting against the bill, including in English.
Netanyahu has a large English-speaking audience, Tsamir said, “but he doesn’t have many opportunities to present himself as a Democrat and a knight of free speech. In this case, he identified an opening. – an opportunity to defend this cause and generate positive interaction with the English-speaking world.
According to Tsamir, “As far as Netanyahu is concerned, these messages are also directed at people controlling social media. It’s super strategic of her to have a good relationship with them. We all saw what happened to [former President Donald] Trump who argued with them and what happened to [President Joe] Biden who took their side. I think Netanyahu understands this on a deep level. “
For this bill to pass, it must be approved at a second and third hearing in the Knesset. We are not there yet. Yet, if approved, it would make Israel one of the first democracies to instill such aggressive surveillance over network activity.