There is a relatively-new “Cyber Unit” within the Israeli government which is censoring Palestinians on social media. Its existence was publicised earlier this month by Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel.
The unit is part of the Attorney General’s office and is putting pressure on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets to purge their platforms of content critical of Israel, especially that which is posted by Palestinians. According to the unit’s own figures, 69 per cent of its requests to remove content were agreed to by the social media giants in question. The Attorney General’s office claims that 1,554 cases of “incitement” were removed as a result of the unit’s operations, out of 2,241 such requests.
Israel habitually smears all credible criticism, activism or even journalism by Palestinians as “incitement”. Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro was interned without trial by Israel recently and then faced a similar travesty at the hands of Israel’s puppet enforcer, the Palestinian Authority. During that process, Amro was accused of “incitement” against the PA and Israel. One of his “crimes” was to speak out in support of journalists in the city of Hebron who had been critical of the PA and its collaboration with the Israeli occupation entity. This is the kind of thing that Israel (and the PA) smears as “incitement”.
So one can only imagine what this Israeli “Cyber Unit” is up to behind the scenes, working with Facebook and Twitter to censor legitimate free speech and criticism of the Zionist state’s crimes. In doing this, says Adalah, the Attorney General is even acting in violation of Israeli law.
According to Fady Khoury, one of the civil rights group’s lawyers, Cyber Unit operations are a clear violation of free speech: “In this context, a determination by the state’s attorney’s office, through the Cyber Unit, that a certain expression posted on social media websites amounts to a criminal offence is tantamount to an unproven suspicion.” The unit, he points out, cannot impose sanctions based solely on this suspicion, let alone severe sanctions in the form of censorship. “The authorities are not allowed to demand the removal of speech that has not yet been proven to be criminal, even if it is unpleasant to their ears. All speech should enjoy a ‘presumption of legality’ (akin to the presumption of innocence) until a court of law declares it illegal.”
The Adalah lawyer clarified the issue further: “When the Cyber Unit appeals to a service provider with a request to censor content based on its suspicion that the concerned content is expression forbidden by law and without a final [judicial] ruling in the matter, this constitutes an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech.”
Israel, despite its pretence to the contrary, has never been a fan of the rule of law. It is more open to the rule of the jungle. In fact, the Israeli apartheid entity currently usurping Palestine has only one real rule: it must get away with as much as is realistically achievable. Anything, in fact, to enable it to have as much Palestinian land as possible with the minimum number of Arabs thereon as possible.
This seems to be a particularly blatant violation of the rule of law, something which should not be countenanced by social media platforms. If there is no evidence presented of posts being illegal, then Facebook, Twitter and the rest should not be removing them. Even if some “evidence” was presented, there is no reason for social media platforms based outside of Israeli jurisdiction to comply with illegitimate Israeli institutions, such as the military censor’s office and the military courts of the occupation authorities. However, all too often these corporations have an unprecedented veto on who can and cannot have full freedom of expression, and appear far too ready to collaborate with Israel.
Facebook has an agreement with the Israeli government to act and thus censor Palestinian accounts, and last year temporarily disabled the accounts of journalists who administer the pages of two of the most widely read Palestinian publications on the Internet. The social media giant has also faced lawsuits from Shurat HaDin, a front for the Mossad spy agency, and other Israeli government bodies.
This is a symptom of the increasingly privatised times we live in. New technology has brought new ways of communication, often heralded in advance to be emancipatory. Unlike email, for example, which is an open, decentralised, system with transparent protocols which can be operated independently, privatised internet communications spaces like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the rest carry grave dangers for freedom of speech. As Adalah has written, Israel is by no means the only oppressive regime which these corporations have helped to spy on and censor its critics.
The social media giants should be broken up and democratised in the long run. In the meantime, they should not assist Israel in censoring Palestinians and other blatant violations of free speech and the rule of law.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.