Keep it hardcore: why limiting access to porn in Israel is a blow to freedom
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Photo credit: Pornhub + BaDoink Free VR TV Ad / YouTube

Photo credit: Pornhub + BaDoink Free VR TV Ad / YouTube

Yes, viewing porn on the internet – and many other things – may soon become very difficult in Israel

In a move that led to massive forehead smacking throughout the country, Israelis learned on Monday that a bill was approved by a ministerial committee that would see web traffic filtered by default, weeding out supposedly offensive content from public view.

Ostensibly targeting pornography, the bill was championed by Member of Knesset (Israel’s national parliament) Shulamit “Shuli” Mualem-Rafaeli of the conservative Jewish Home party, and according to Haaretz, was supported by 26 members from multiple parties, crisscrossing between the left and right. This includes the country’s secular and religious parties, and even the Arab Joint List, which was supposedly under a boycott due to their leader Ayman Odeh having backed off from attending the funeral of former President Shimon Peres last month.

According to details that have been released thus far, the bill would make it a requirement of internet service providers to filter out the aforementioned but yet to be defined offensive content as a free service to the public.

Those wishing to remove the filter and gain full access to the web would need to “opt in” by contacting their ISP, marking themselves onto lists as those who want exposure to porn.

To call this move an extreme overstep into people’s digital privacy would be an understatement to say the least. It is dangerous and leads to a very slippery slope indeed.

What are the legal consequences?

Photo Credit: Ashley Madison

Photo Credit: Ashley Madison

The idea of creating lists of people who have come out and essentially signed up to be labeled as consumers of pornography is an invasion of privacy. In speaking with Attorney Jonathan Klinger of the Digital Rights Movement in Israel, he points out that these lists would be sensitive and could be used against those on them if leaked. Look no further than the hacks of Ashley Madison to see how social taboos can play out negatively, even if those lists are supposedly private.

Beyond the social issues, there are the more technical problems of privacy that arise from this sort of approach to interfere with the internet. While Klinger tells Geektime that he does not know how the filtering or opt out option will be enforced, either through deep packet inspection or otherwise, it could lead to unwanted identification and discrimination. He makes the point that users who decide to opt for full internet access could be identified by their IP addresses as such, which would be visible to companies online, and then targeted with different kinds of content.

From a security perspective, he notes that, “The bill itself is more than just offensive and stupid, there is a big man in the middle situation, sitting between me and my content.” This is because filtering companies like Internet Rimon, a service that works with many in the religious community that want access to the internet without potentially offensive content, would be sitting in the middle, sifting through traffic. Klinger explains that this would mean that actors like these could view what is sent to sites like Facebook or even your bank.

What could be offensive may hurt a lot of people — not just porn watchers

Inevitably when calls for new regulation and censorship arise, there is the question of who gets to decide what is offensive. American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stevens famously stated of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

Klinger has little trust in the government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to think objectively about what should be blocked from the internet.

“As we have seen in other states, they block content to services like support for sex assault victims, sites targeted for children, and the LGBT community,” he says. Klinger adds that Mualem’s own site could be blocked because it discusses pornography.

“Who will deem what is appropriate or not?” he asks.

Blocking such content could in fact cause harm to many of these groups, as vulnerable people, including minors, are unable to access important resources. Take for example an LGBT youth from a conservative family who is unable to find a supportive community, or women looking for information about health and family planning. It is unlikely that some of these people would want to find themselves on a list of pornography consumers.

This is not to say that there is no room for some regulation of what material should be regulated. The issue that Klinger raises is that it does not make sense to simply block material online if it is legally available in other formats.

“They have to make guidelines for what is permitted for when you are not harming others. If they decide that inciting terror is illegal, which they did, then they should regulate it on and off the internet. If they want to regulate porn and that it should be displayed only to adults, then they should instruct providers and sites to undergo separate steps,” he says, adding that it should not be so expansive.

“If you think something should be illegal, then make it illegal. You can’t have different laws for different technologies. If you have any limit on free speech, make it equal,” says Klinger, who believes that it is unlikely that such measures would be taken against patrons of strip clubs and other forms of sexualized content.

Why would the Israeli parliament pass such a bill?

TEL-AVIV, ISRAEL - MARCH 17: Israeli's vote on elections day for the 20th Knesset on March 17, 2015 in Tel-aviv, Israel. Photo credit: Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images Israel

TEL-AVIV, ISRAEL – MARCH 17: Israeli’s vote on elections day for the 20th Knesset on March 17, 2015 in Tel-aviv, Israel. Photo credit: Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images Israel

Looking for a moment at the basis of this bill, it begs the question of what is driving the MKs to pass such an initiative.

He notes that the Knesset has tried to pass this bill and ones similar to it once or twice a year for the past decade. Proponents of the bill have pointed to a 2006 survey which found that 60% of youth were viewing offensive, albeit not necessarily sexual, content, that was conducted by Israeli-American media researcher Dafna Lemish, who studies the effects of media on youth, with a focus on how it constructs their gender identities.

Arguing that children should have easy access to pornography is and probably should be a losing battle. It can create unrealistic expectations of sex and relationships for youngsters, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

However, Klinger tells Geektime that, “Using data from 2006 to legislate something from 2016 is just stupid.” If the government wishes to trounce over personal privacy, then they should come up with more contemporary research.

According to Klinger, “The motivation behind this bill isn’t a big conspiracy but in fact is totally redundant. We already have a law that says that parents can receive a free internet protection package.”

If this is so and it effectively protects children, then why push for harsher restrictions?

Asked how this initiative succeeded in garnering so much support, Klinger says that, “Usually MKs sign a bill because people ask them. I want to assume that nobody actually read it and when they face the facts, they’ll withdraw their support for the bill.”

This is not to say that he has full confidence that the bill will fade away this time like it has in past years. “The last 10 years, we‘ve seen this bill fail every year once or twice and hopefully it will as well. With the current state of Israeli democracy being so fragile, I’m very concerned.”

Klinger encourages the public to take part in the struggle against this bill, telling Geektime that people should email their parliament members and ask that they withdraw their support. “Share your opposition on Facebook and other social media,” he says. “If you want to help us, we need volunteers, and of course donations. We keep the internet safe from the government.”

More information about the Movement for Digital Rights and how to get involved can be found on their website.

Looking around at other countries that have taken steps to filter the internet and identify those who seek out X-rated material, it is not a cadre that Israelis should be rushing to join. Turkey and Iran have long had bans on access to pornography. More recently in September, Russia was reported to have blocked PornHub and YouPorn.

In the headlines, pornography appears boldly as the target. What is left unclear is what other kinds of content will be blocked. Could this include political issues? Unfavorable coverage of people in power? The list goes on.

Defending potentially offensive material is a hard position to take, especially for elected officials. But the health of a democracy depends on standing up for unpopular causes. Allowing this bill to pass would serve only to lead Israel farther down its slippery slope, and therefore should be fought tooth and nail.

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Gabriel Avner

About Gabriel Avner


Gabriel has an unhealthy obsession with new messaging apps, social media and pretty much anything coming out of Apple. An experienced security and conflict consultant, he has written for The Diplomatic Club, the Marine War College, and covers military affairs with TLV1 radio. He mostly enjoys reading articles wherever his ADD leads him to and training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. EEED 44D4 B8F4 24BE F77E 2DEA 0243 CBD1 3F7C F4B6

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