Middle East-based civil society activists have warned of a chilling effect on freedom of expression, following a high-profile agreement between the Israeli government and Facebook.
In a statement published yesterday, co-signatories 7amleh (Palestine), 7iber (Jordan), Social Media Exchange (Lebanon) and Vecbox (Palestine) say that social media companies "risk becoming tools of…[the] states [they negotiate special terms with]".
With Israel specifically, "a state engaged in a decades-long occupation", companies like Facebook "similarly risk becoming agents of occupation and oppression", the statement adds. "In short, in either case, they risk implicating themselves in limiting the very right they seek to promote."
As the signatories note, in early September the Israeli government announced an agreement with Facebook "to work together to determine how to tackle incitement on the social media network." Ten days later, "Facebook disabled the accounts of editors at two of Palestine's most widely read online publications, prompting widespread online protest."
Though on this occasion, "Facebook quickly apologised and reinstated the accounts, the incident -along with the Israeli announcement – serve to highlight critical issues about the negative effects of bilateral collaboration between private social media companies and national governments on freedom of expression online."
The groups note that "the agreement with Facebook appears to legitimise an Israeli policy that in recent months has resulted in an estimated 400 arrests of Palestinians – both in Israel and the Occupied Territories – for 'incitement' in social media posts, primarily on Facebook. Posts have included acts as simple as writing a poem."
The statement urges Facebook to "adhere to international human rights norms and tests, regarding freedom of expression on your platform", and to "develop checks on your procedures and faster resolution processes in the suspension of user accounts for 'incitement'."
The groups also ask Facebook to "move towards greater transparency on how the company negotiates with governments when those negotiations implicate human rights."
The signatories, who describe themselves as "organisations and individuals deeply engaged in protecting and defending free expression online in Arab countries and globally", encourage social media users to "report incidents of takedowns to OnlineCensorship.org".
— Palestine is not a slogan (@Stefaniafodd) September 25, 2016