The State Attorney’s unit operates outside the law to censor Facebook & YouTube posts; 2017 saw 500% increase in posts censored as a result of Cyber Unit’s action.
Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel continues to demand that Israel’s state attorney’s office shutter its “Cyber Unit” which – in collaboration with major social media outlets such as Facebook and YouTube – is illegally censoring user content.
Adalah sent an initial letter on 2 August 2017 to Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, State Attorney Shai Nitzan, and Cyber Unit director Haim Vismonsky demanding that they immediately cease the illegal operations of the state attorney’s Cyber Unit.
The state responded on 11 November 2017, claiming that the unit operates in accordance with instructions from the attorney general and state attorney, according to an orderly work procedure. State authorities also noted that requests to remove content are made only when there is a public interest justifying such action, and that the activity of the unit stems from its statutory duty as an enforcement body to prevent the commission of criminal offenses. The state also noted that it not actually removing the posts but rather requesting that social media outlets take this action.
In a follow-up letter issued to the same respondents on 21 November 2018 by Adalah Attorneys Rabea Eghbariah and Fady Khoury, Adalah stressed that the state’s response failed to address the constitutional and legal flaws inherent in the Cyber Unit’s activities.
The state attorney’s authority in such issues is limited to the possibility of retroactively appealing to the courts and bringing suspects to trial. The court is the only body authorized to determine whether a particular social media post constitutes a crime and to order punitive measures.
It is immaterial whether the removal of content is actually carried out voluntarily by a private body such as content providers. The Cyber Unit’s proactive approach constitutes a procedural act that must confirm to the principles of constitutional and administrative law.
Israel’s dramatic increase in online censorship in 2017, without any legal authorization and in violation of a series of basic principles in constitutional and administrative law, raises the real concern of a potential spillover of state censorship of protected publications.
ADALAH DEMANDS THAT ISRAEL’S CYBER UNIT:
Immediately cease submitting requests for the removal of social media content, since doing so violates fundamental principles of constitutional and administrative law;
Immediately transmit for our review a copy of the work procedure according to which the Cyber Unit submits requests for removal of content based on the public’s right to know.
WHAT IS THE CYBER UNIT?
The Cyber Unit began operation during the second half of 2015 and is responsible for “dealing with cyberspace enforcement challenges” via censorship of social media posts. This censorship – conducted in collaboration and coordination with social media outlets, including U.S.-based giants Facebook and YouTube – entails the removal of content added by users, restriction of access to certain websites, and outright blocking of users’ access to these sites.
The number of Cyber Unit requests to remove content skyrocketed in 2017.
Data provided by the unit revealed that in 2016 it submitted 2,241 content removal requests; of these, 1,554 were removed, and 162 were partially removed. In 2017, however, the Cyber Unit submitted 12,351 content removal requests – an increase of more than 500% percent; 85% of the requests ultimately led to the full removal of the concerned posts and another three percent led to partial removal.
Cyber Unit clerks and administrative officials decide for themselves, within the framework of an alternative enforcement system, if a certain instance of expression “is incitement to violence and terror, and support of a terror organization” or is a “forbidden publication towards public servants in the framework of their jobs.” However, Israel’s state attorney is usurping authority – reserved for the judicial branch – illegally and without any legal authorization. The Cyber Unit cannot impose sanctions based solely on suspicion.