Censorship against Palestinians brings Onlinecensorship.org back to its roots
by Jessica Anderson | Oct 12 2016
Israel’s record on Freedom of Expression
In the middle of the night on October 11, 2015, Israeli police arrested Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet and activist. Police raided Tatour’s home, arrested her, and confiscated and searched her electronic devices without a warrant, in violation of their own laws.
On November 2, Tatour was officially charged with inciting violence and terrorism on the basis of original poetry and political commentary she posted on Facebook and YouTube. After three months in detention, she was placed on strict house arrest until trial. If convicted later this year, she could face up to eight years in prison for speaking out against Israeli military and police brutality.
Rights groups Adalah and Addameer estimate that Israel has arrested at least 400 Palestinians since October 2015 for “expressing resistance to Israeli military occupation over social media.” As of June 2016, Israel was also holding at least 21 Palestinian journalists in prison.
Tatour holds Israeli citizenship. Her case represents the threats experienced by even the most legally privileged group of Palestinians. Israel’s civil legal framework is openly hostile toward freedom of expression for Palestinian citizens. The “Nakba Law” (2011), for example, allows penalties to be levied against organizations that support Palestinian historical narratives. The Boycott Law (2011) imposes penalties on individuals or organizations that call for boycott against Israel or Israeli settlements. Israeli military law, which applies to Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, amplifies these attitudes.
Facebook - Israel Partnership
In the above context, Palestinians received news in September of high level conversations between Facebook and Israel to jointly control “incitement.” The partnership builds on Facebook’s past willingness to enter into voluntary cooperations with governments. In June, an agreement between the European Commission and four tech companies—including Facebook—went into effect, drawing criticism from digital rights organizations.
Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked claims that, even before the agreement, Facebook removed 95% of 158 inciting posts this year, up from 50% in 2015. Facebook does not currently report data on such takedowns, but it started reporting on government requests for user data in 2013. Between 2013-2015, Facebook’s reports indicate that Israel made at least 1053 data requests related to 1303 accounts, and Facebook restricted 574 pieces of content, including 236 in the last six months of 2015.
Facebook also includes Palestine in its government transparency reports, but has never fulfilled a data request by the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority has only launched 4 requests in total.
The disparity is clear: Israel is more than capable of transposing its power to digital space, while Palestinians living under Israeli law, whether civil or military, face a deepening crisis of representation both online and offline.
Online Censorship and Marginalized Communities
As if to confirm Palestinians’ fears, in the week following its meetings with Israel, Facebook banned the accounts of seven editors from two prominent Palestinian news agencies, Shehab News Agency and Quds News Network.
These cases bring Onlinecensorship.org back to its roots. Co-founder Ramzi Jaber came up with the idea for the project after witnessing a case of abusive flagging and removal of a video Coldplay posted called Freedom for Palestine.
“Onlinecensorship.org, for me, was about drawing attention to how social media censorship disproportionately affects marginalized communities. The communities that could most benefit from protected spaces online are being excluded from participation,” Jaber says. “Five years on, we have seen that these platforms sometimes respond to feedback from those communities, but we need to continue to organize and push them,” he adds.
In 2010, co-founder Jillian C. York wrote about an incident in which users were blocked from creating new pages with the word “Palestinian” in them. Facebook eventually apologized, calling it a mistake.
After public outcry, including a boycott, Facebook categorized these latest incidents as a mistake as well. “Our team processes millions of reports each week, and we sometimes get things wrong. We’re very sorry about this mistake,” they said in an official apology.
References to human error and overwhelming volumes of content feature frequently in Facebook apologies about heavy handed content moderation. Onlinecensorship.org studies and highlights how these errors may constitute a larger pattern.
While we recognize that social media will never be a completely safe place for communities under threat, the burden is on Facebook to distance themselves from oppressive governments that use the platform to further surveillance, censorship, and intimidation.
Onlinecensorship.org is now available in Arabic.