Israel seeks to apply rules to regulate social media platforms, offensive content

Israel announced on Wednesday that it will adopt recommendations to regulate social media companies such as TikTok, YouTube, Meta’s Facebook and Twitter, to address offensive and illegal content and promote a safer online environment for Israeli users.

Israel’s outgoing Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel said that for the first time Israel is recommending measures that would place legal responsibility on social media platforms to tackle illegal and offensive online content, following similar steps approved by the European Union earlier this year.

“This is an unregulated space where negative and harmful social phenomena have emerged,” said Hendel. “Legal responsibility needs to be applied to digital platforms in relation to the distribution of illegal sexual content, incitement to violence and terrorism, and more.”

“The step we are taking today brings us closer to a more protected and safer online space while preserving freedom of expression,” he remarked.

Hendel adopted the recommendations of the committee for examining legislation on online social platforms in Israel, which was created in October 2021. The committee headed by the Communication Ministry director-general Liran Avisar Ben-Horin and experts in the field was tasked to find ways to tackle ethical and regulatory questions regarding social media networks.

Under the new rules recommended by the committee, which still await legislation and parliamentary passage, social media companies will be obliged to act quickly to remove offensive illegal content, operate an online hotline for reporting illegal and offensive content, create more transparency towards users, and establish an appeal mechanism for users if their accounts have been limited or blocked.

Yoaz Hendel speaks at a conference in Ramat Gan on September 8, 2019. (Flash90)

Israeli courts will also be authorized to issue orders to remove illegal and offensive content. Additionally, a regulator will be set up to supervise social media platforms in Israel.

The adopted regulation would apply to online social platforms with more than 500,000 users in Israel, 5% of the country’s population. Social media companies operating in Israel will need to have a representative office in the country, according to the recommended rules.

“For the first time, we recommend recognizing the responsibility of the platforms as content managers and not as a “bulletin board,” stated Avisar Ben-Horin. “We are correcting the imbalance in the power relationship between the operators of the social platforms and the user public, which leads to a violation of their rights.”

Specifically, the responsibility placed on social media platforms would apply to offensive online content such as sexual offenses, defamation, invasion of privacy, threats, incitement to violence, incitement to terrorism and incitement to racism, according to the recommendations. Illegal online content that would receive special attention and would require quick and immediate removal includes the dissemination of intimate photos or videos and content that constitutes bullying towards children.

Hendel emphasized that the information revolution has enriched humanity but also created new dilemmas that many governments are trying to deal with.

Israel’s move comes after the EU parliament and the bloc’s 27 member states in April approved landmark legislation, also known as the Digital Services Act (DSA) rules aimed at clamping down on the power of social media companies and other digital platforms to better protect European users from hate speech, disinformation and other harmful online content. The EU’s new rules should make tech companies more accountable for content created by users and amplified by their platforms’ algorithms.

Earlier this month, Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for digital policy, warned Elon Musk that Twitter needs to step up efforts to protect users from hate speech, misinformation and other harmful content to avoid violating the new rules as they are set to take effect next year.

Violations could result in huge fines of up to 6% of a company’s annual global revenue or even a ban on operating in the European Union’s single market, according to the DSA regulation.

AP contributed to this report.

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