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Israel: Law for Censorship of Web Comments Passes Initial Knesset Voting

Israeli web culture is known for having an active talkback (web commenting) scene. Every major news site allows users to submit comments for every single one of its stories. Israeli culture at its best and worst thrives through discussions held within these spaces; discussions which are planned to fall under future censorship, according to the Talkback Law, proposed by Knesset member Israel Hasson. The proposal passed initial voting in the Knesset yesterday, January 16th.

According to the proposal, a popular site, defined as one with an average of 50,000 hits or more per day, will be considered a “newspaper” and thus liable for the damage or harm caused to a person as a result from its user generated content (i.e. – comments). Ironically, the web post describing this case, published yesterday on the popular ynet news site, has already received over 200 comments.

Hasson's reasoning for the importance of such a law:

“It is unreasonable that a response, possibly anonymous, sent to a newspaper, will be held under the editor's responsibility, but a response submitted to the online portal of that same newspaper will be under nobody's authority… We must not turn the network into a vandalizing, evil tool.”

Gal Mor‘s recent post describes Hasson's argument as coarse and lacking reference to implications on the basic right for freedom of speech:

Israel Hasson's proposal, which imposes criminal responsibility on commentators, editors and operators of large websites, passed the preliminary vote today. 29 Knesset members supported and only two opposed this evil law proposal. Evil – not because those who slander will tremble before writing now, but because of the lack of reference to the thin texture of freedom of speech. The legislator's coarse treatment of the internet is similar to that of a Beitar (sports group) fan's visit to a museum.

It is hard to claim that Shelly Yachimovich, who opposed the proposal along with Gideon Sa'ar, saved the Knesset's dignity, not even that of the Labor party. But her vote and reasonings are definitely worthy of respect: “the internet works by a different code of conduct from those of traditional media. True, it is not pleasant to have slanderous talkbacks pointed at you, even I feel unpleasant sometimes, but not enough for me to lower the gavel as a legislator. I suggest to remove this proposal from the daily agenda. It harms freedom of speech and will not be effective. The immense advantages of the web outweighs its disadvantages by far.”

It is necessary now to think of an effective response to protest the continuation of this legislative process. For instance, set one day when all the websites block the option to insert a talkback in order to demonstrate what will happen if this proposal is accepted.

UvalS writes about privacy and posts a link to an online petition:

Part of what I like about the internet is anonymity… I do not like being forced to identify or expose of my information on the web. But I do it when I want to, and that is the big difference. No one forces me to identify and give my private information. And here essentially is your problem, Israel Hasson.

I don't really believe in petitions, but to sit and do nothing will never help. Nana created an online petition against the Talkback Law here.

Jonathan Klinger‘s argument notes the government's attempt to make private entities liable to censor data, and warns that a future implementation of this law will diminish freedom of speech and conversation, as in Iran:

I'd like to emphasize two major topics: death to the culture of discussion on the one hand, and forcing websites to report the amount of traffic on the other. It is clear to everyone that filtering content on the web leads to censorship. It is clear that forcing websites to be liable, will lead to them not supporting the conversation. I do not believe that, by Hasson's words, “we have progressed today a substantial step towards a culture of conversation and mutual honor in the State of Israel”. The only advancement that we saw today, after the approval of this law proposal in the government's committee, is towards a country where censorship is operated by private entities for the government… We will all pay the price for this censorship!

The real blow in rights is that of the websites and their right of property: they will be obliged to report to a government apparatus the number of hits on their pages, the information of their editors and their information stored in a site list. This is substantial damage to one's right of expression, especially when the person does not have the ability to open a website that will act as a stage because he/she will be subject to sign up with a government official. Israel will be like Iran, where website owners must register with the government and be fully liable (for their content).

Hanan Cohen describes his feeling of fatigue, constantly trying to protect Israeli democracy:

… I have a feeling that every time we shout about a new topic, from subject to subject, from law proposal to the next, we become tired. The struggle over a law or against censorship drown us with the little details. And in the meanwhile, the general trend is increasing. We need to start talking about the general trend and point to the forest, not just the trees.

Earlier in his post, Hanan relates to various law proposals which have been brought to the discussion board during the current government's reign in power:

The Talkback Law
The Internet Censorship Law
Communication information Law (Big Brother Law)
Censorship during the second Lebanon war
Daniel Friedman's reform in the legal system
Reduction of the strike's legitimacy as a method for protest

In the meanwhile, the Hebrew blogosphere braces for a fight. Various commentary cartoons and slogans have already been created to draw activists attention to the implications of the Talkback Proposal. Following are two images. The first, a slogan, designed by Liz Cugan and posted on Ma'ariv's site. This translates to “Talkback Now” and relates to a well-known campaign in Israel, rallying for “Peace Now”. The following image is designed with similar font, colors and wording.

tkbk

The illustration below was created by Roni, describing the possible result of posting comments on a site.

roni

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