Threading a needle on social media reforms in Israel

With hate and disinformation on the rise, the country’s point person on internet regulation has the trickiest of portfolios

The problem is Talmudic in complexity: How to regulate the ill effects of social media platforms — algorithms that push people toward radicalism, the dissemination of false information and the spread of antisemitism and other forms of hate — without trampling on free speech and privacy rights?

That knotty question, which no Western government has been able to answer even as the influence of the internet has evolved at breakneck speed, is now on the shoulders, in Israel at least, of Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel.

Just back from a visit to the U.S., where he shared ideas with members of Congress and Jewish groups about ways to regulate social media platforms and hold them accountable for their actions, Hendel is getting to work. He is establishing two parliamentary committees to focus on the matter: one that he will head; and an umbrella committee to be led by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

“As I see it, there was a vacuum in the last few  years, and no one knew, actually, what the social media networks are doing and how the government should treat them — and I’m talking about democracies,” Hendel told Jewish Insider in a recent interview.

“Israel urgently needs legislation addressing social media, one that will not leave us exposed in areas in which first-world citizens elsewhere are protected,” Shwartz Altshuler stressed.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Media Reform and Democracy in the Information Age programs, told JI that legislation has lagged behind technology partly due to the faster pace at which the latter evolves. 

“Legislators are not necessarily tech savvy enough to understand and foresee implications of new technologies,” she said. “Finally, the big data companies are a force to be reckoned with and have a very powerful lobby in place to minimize overseeing regulations that might impact the bottom line.”

“Israel urgently needs legislation addressing social media, one that will not leave us exposed in areas in which first-world citizens elsewhere are protected,” Shwartz Altshuler stressed.

This legislation, she said, should include “privacy protections that will outlaw the targeting of users based on their emotional vulnerabilities; requirements to explain decisions to remove content and to delete accounts; provisions making it easy to sue social media providers in Israel; establishment of a framework via which Israeli courts can quickly issue orders for harmful content to be taken down; and requirements to invest resources in monitoring and blocking toxic content in Hebrew.”

Efforts are also underway in the U.S. and Europe to regulate social media platforms in a way that will make them take more responsibility for their conduct and the content they promote, and hold them legally accountable for behavior that harms their users and beyond. 

The so-called Facebook Files, leaked by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen — who testified before Congress last month that the platform’s algorithms funnel users toward extremist content and that the company puts its own profit above the safety of its users — is the latest wake-up call. 

Enabling incitement to violence, intentionally pushing users to consume radical political content, spreading misinformation and having a damaging impact on teenagers’ mental health and body image are among accusations that have been leveled against social media platforms in recent years.

As Hendel works to address the issue, which he says has been sitting in “no-man’s land” for too long, he is looking to other democracies to share ideas on this universal challenge.

On his visit to Washington and New York, Hendel discussed the topic with Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Telecom, Media and Broadband. Luján is, in turn, set to appear before Hendel’s committee to share ideas.

“It’s now time to ask ourselves what kind of tool the social media networks are,” Hendel said.

“I want to learn from them,” Hendel said. “They are in a long process and I think that they can help and donate a lot to our discussion. And it’s important to understand by the way, that from day one, we actually are using the material from overseas and from Europe trying to understand how they got to those conclusions and what they are doing now. And again, it’s not a lot — everything is in process, but I believe that in 2022 you will see changes in the public atmosphere regarding those social media networks.”

Hendel also met with representatives of the Israeli-American Council, AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations and  the Israel-U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as tech giants Google, Amazon, Twitter, Netflix, Cisco Systems and Lockheed Martin. 

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Israeli Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel (right)

A key question to be tackled by his parliamentary committee is how to categorize social media platforms.

“It’s now time to ask ourselves what kind of tool the social media networks are,” Hendel said. “Are they a kind of mailman, delivering letters — doesn’t matter what they carry, if it’s a bomb or threat — or are they a kind of broadcaster, responsible for editing the material, choosing what kind of headline they will pick, and what kind of audience they are trying to recruit or to influence.”

“I think that most of the government understands today that we are in the second option,” Hendel continued. “It’s exactly like the media, and if I’m regulating the broadcasters and I’m kind of responsible for the media in my country — not the content but in the way they are acting — why not make sure that everything we’re taking care of under the law is also happening in the internet.”

Several times during the conversation he stressed that he wasn’t seeking to handle the content itself, noting that there is no place for a “Minister of Truth” in a democracy.

In 2018, a “Facebook bill” put forward by then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and then- Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan would have allowed the state to remove content from social media networks that it classified as illegal or inciting violence, but was viewed by many as a move that would trespass on civil liberties. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ultimately blocked the bill from passing into law.

“The law in 2018 would have enabled the state to decide whether or not content violates the Israeli penal code and remove such content, including anything from insulting a state employee, or a call for a tax boycott, to incitement to murder or terrorism,” said Shwartz Altshuler. 

“Decision-makers realized that it could have set Israel back decades in terms of freedom of speech. Any future regulation has to focus on protecting individual privacy while upholding democratic values such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” she added.

Lauren Krapf, technology policy and advocacy counsel at the ADL, told JI, “We haven’t had any increased regulation or opportunity for liability in the U.S. since 1996.” 

Hendel believes in “minimum regulation” but also in “equal duties and rules for everyone.” If a social media company blocks a user, for instance, they are not required to report to anyone or explain themselves, Hendel noted, while news publishers are required to provide a public service and answer to complaints or accusations of wrongdoing. 

He noted that in today’s reality, where broadcasters are regulated but content they transfer to the internet is not, “you are actually regulating the past and not the present and tomorrow.”

In the U.S., meanwhile, a controversial law currently on the books is the only point of reference for social media conduct. 

The Anti-Defamation League is part of a growing movement pushing for reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the legal provision that shields websites from legal liability for the content their users post.

Lauren Krapf, technology policy and advocacy counsel at the ADL, told JI, “We haven’t had any increased regulation or opportunity for liability in the U.S. since 1996 — the internet looks very different now than it did in 1996 (when Section 230 was passed into law.)” 

Krapf continued, “Social media platforms’ influence now is quite different than it was in 1996, so we need to have the opportunity to hold platforms accountable, to be able to bring them to court when their role in certain violent and unlawful acts is so clear that at least we have to get to the stage where we can have discovery and be able to understand a platform’s specific knowledge or specific contribution to illegal conduct.”

In March, in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, the ADL released a comprehensive agenda to fight hate in the digital world, called the Repair Plan.

The group has been working with law and policy makers to address the different facets of its plan, which include regulation and reform, enforcement at scale, and ensuring that people are put over profit when it comes to companies’ choices regarding the safety and security of their users. 

Last week, Dave Sifry, vice president of the ADL’s Center for Technology and Society, participated in a panel of experts at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing about social media’s role in spreading extremism.

“Self-regulation is clearly not working,” Sifry said. “Without regulation and reform, they will continue to focus on generating record profits at the expense of our safety and the security of our republic.”

The experts and several of the lawmakers present appeared to be in agreement that additional regulations would be necessary to increase the companies’ transparency.

Committee Ranking Member Rob Portman (R-OH) said he and Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) are currently working on legislation that would impose such transparency requirements “so that we can all work together on solutions to these problems that all of us have identified.”

In an opinion piece published in The Jerusalem Post last week, Jordana Cutler, public policy director for Israel and the Jewish Diaspora at Facebook, sought to dispel views that the social media giant is in opposition to external regulation.

“The internet has transformed the world over the last two decades, but it has also introduced new challenges, and legislation has not kept up,” she wrote. “In the coming weeks, the Justice Ministry will discuss new rules for harmful content online with both tech companies and some of their staunchest critics. While there will no doubt be differing views, we should all agree on one thing: the tech industry needs regulation.”

Culter said Facebook welcomes the new Justice Ministry committee and stated that, “At Facebook, we’ve advocated for democratic governments to set new rules for the Internet on areas like harmful content, privacy, data and elections, because we believe that businesses like ours should not be making these decisions on our own.”

According to the latest results from ADL’s third annual survey of hate and harassment on social media, despite tech companies claiming to have stepped up self-regulation measures, the level of online hate and harassment reported by users remains high. 

Forty-one percent of Americans who responded to the survey said they had experienced online harassment in 2021, down slightly from the 44% reported in 2020. LGBTQ+ respondents reported higher rates of overall harassment than all other demographics for the third consecutive year, at 64%. Meanwhile, 36% of Jewish respondents experienced online harassment, compared with 33% the previous year.

Incitement, hate and antisemitism on social media were central topics in a meeting between Hendel, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. and U.N. Gilad Erdan, during the minister’s recent visit to New York. The three discussed the influence that algorithms can ultimately have on teenagers via the content pushed their way, and the need for transparency and accountability. They agreed that Israel would be part of a U.N. committee dealing with the subject and that Erdan and Guterres would join forces to fight the problem and share information.

“I found there a real partner for this effort,” Hendel said of Guterres. “He understands it completely.”

“I think that you have a kind of consensus all over the world, and the U.N. can really raise its flag on it,” he added.

California appears to be making progress, with a transparency bill for social media that has moved through the state Assembly and is now in the Senate. Bill A-587 would require social media companies that generated at least $100 million to post their terms of service in a specified manner and with additional specified information.

Krapf said the ADL has been working closely with lawmakers there, and she expressed hope that “in California we’ll be able to get increased transparency sooner rather than later.”

“I think there is a lot of motivation to enact change in the U.S. at the federal and state level,” Krapf told JI. She said a multi-pronged approach is needed, covering privacy, antitrust, increased liability and transparency issues. “I do see there is motivation and we are glad to see a leadership in the U.S. for moving the needle forward; we just have to make sure we get across the finish line.” 

While different countries are working at different paces and in different ways to try to combat the negative impact social media can have on their citizens, many are now on a similar path.

“When you have a common interest and when you have a lot of similar challenges,” Hendel said, “at the end of the day the regulation probably will look the same.” 

Marc Rod contributed to this report

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