Last week, the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, passed a law which approved the use of online censorship in the country. Under the new legislation, Israeli courts can now order ISPs in the country to block a whole range of different sites if they can be proved to be promoting criminal or terrorist activity.
Online Censorship in Israel
The law was opposed by a number of digital rights in Israel, who ordered that this was likely to be the start of a slippery slope for online freedoms in the country and that more wide-scale censorship was likely to follow.
In a nod to those opposition voices, the new law does include a right for these groups to appeal decisions to block sites. However, the timeframes in which such decisions are likely to be taken means that users in Israel can expect sites to disappear quickly, while such appeals could take months or even longer.
For a block to be put in place, all parties must be present in court, which means sites will have an opportunity to state their case. But if they fail to turn up having been summoned, which is likely in many cases, the proceedings can continue without them.
Such censorship concerns have reared their heads before in Israel. Last year a Bill was approved which effectively censored online porn, as it required Israeli internet users to contact their ISP and inform them that they wanted to access it.
And their Facebook law, which requires social media sites to remove content which the Israeli courts deem to be “inciting” conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has also been widely criticised.
Vague wording and some sites removed for good
But now, the number of websites which can be blocked in the country is likely to escalate dramatically. And indeed, if the website is located within Israel, the court is likely to order its complete removal rather than merely the blocking of it.
And for those sites that are blocked, the court is also likely to prevent them from even being traceable through search engines. This is because the new law empowers the judge to order their removal from all search results. It remains to be seen whether this power is enforceable or not, but most big search engines, such as Google, will usually comply with such court orders.
The Israeli Government claims that this extremely thorough new law is intended to target such issues as illegal gambling, child pornography, prostitution, the online sale of illegal narcotics, and terrorism. The reality is the wording is sufficiently vague for that to apply to just about anything.
A district court judge who has received special permission from the court president will be empowered to order the blocking of such sites and any internet provider which does not comply with a court order can expect to be imprisoned for anything up to two years.
The new legislation passed the Knesset by a comfortable majority, with 63 legislators voting in favour of the new powers, while just 10 opposed. And according to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, all the new law is doing is closing an age-old loophole.
“Closing an enforcement gap”
“We are closing an enforcement gap of many years during which the existing law was disconnected from the migration of crime to the internet,” he said. “The new law will give the police the necessary tools to fight criminals, felons, and inciters who have moved their activities online.”
And it is not just online rights which the Israeli Knesset are undermining. On the same day that this new law was passed, another which allowed Israeli police to demand that users are blocked by their providers from using their mobile phones for 30-day periods was also approved.
This new power can only be applied if there is a “reasonable basis to assume” that they are using their mobile phone to undertake criminal or terrorist activities.
As with the online legislation, there is plenty of room for interpretation in the wording of the new laws, which is why digital rights groups and plenty of Israeli citizens have significant concerns. This mobile phone power requires another vote before it passes into law, but with zero legislators opposing it in this vote, the likely of it not being passed seems unlikely.
For Israeli internet users, this means a significant likelihood of sites beginning to disappear from the internet sooner rather than later. But for many, this will of course not stop them accessing that site, or others like it, as they will simply use a reliable VPN such as IPVanish or ExpressVPN to circumvent the censorship.