Last night I had a conversation with a friend about some issues I have with organized religion. And here, today it is striking again and the victim of the day is the State of Israel.About half a year ago I blogged about the pending law for internet censorship in Israel and about emails I sent to members of the Knesset advocating against it. What happened today is extremely sad – the law was actually passed in the first round of hearings (HE1; HE2; HE3; HE4). Well, it looks like it was passed primarily as a result of political opportunism of Shas, the largest religious party in the Israeli Knesset, but more about it later.
The essence of the law (assuming it will pass the committees and another two rounds of hearings as it is) is that by default the internet in Israel will be screened for “inappropriate content”. The screening will be done by a committee in the ministry of communication that will set the standards for what “inappropriate” means. People will be given an option to opt out from the screening program, but the default will be a limited version of access to the Web with screening done at the level of the ISP. The articulated logic of the law is that of guarding the children from online predators, from explicit sexual conten, and violence. In order to opt-out from the screening program, one will have to prove their age.
The problem with the law is quite obvious for it in fact introduces government censorship to the internet. The idea that a committee of government officials will decide for the citizen what is appropriate and what is not for them to consume sounds as if taken from a really bad science fiction movie. In this day and age, there is no democratic society that in the world that practices such a rude and intervention in the private information-life of their citizens. Any decision on the appropriation of content will bear ideological flavor and more so, as the act of passing this law indicates, to political pressures. But beyond the expected “flexibility” of definition of “appropriateness” the mere act of intervention of the government into my personal information seeking practices is mind boiling! The places where it happens, it refers to explicitly unlawful content, such as child porn or Nazi propaganda, with solid definitions and free of political pressures.
What is particularly disturbing in this case is that the law is hypocritical on so many levels. The hypocrisy is at the very core of justification behind the law – the desire of guarding the young and gentle minds from all the horrors of the internet and especially from online predators. Here are a few points on that topic:
- Following the debates surrounding this law proposal, the Israeli ISPs agreed to subsidize screening software for their clients, offering it practically for free. This way any concerned parent could simply ask for this service and gain piece of mind (HE).
- Not only that, but apparently there was an alternative law proposal suggesting to make the previous point a legal responsibility. It asked to make it obligatory for the ISPs (1) warn their clients about the “dangers” of the internet and (2) offer them opt-in solutions to screen their internet access. This law proposal was rejected (HE).
- On a related note, the “save the kids” logic still does not justify the “opt-out” nature of the program. Does the state has so little face in parents’ ability to make decisions about their kids information diet? Shouldn’t parents be responsible for making those decisions, particularly when options such as those in the previous bullet are offered? Because right now there is a strong sense that be apparently taking the responsibility from the parents, the state is encouraging sort of an intellectual laziness on behalf of the parents most of whom will not know about or bother to engage with issues of information consumption of their kids. Moreover, many of those who don’t have kids, will most probably not know or not bother to take care of this issue when they are those who have to initiate (you can take a look at some numbers of online behavior patterns in US, which shed light on the level/lack of engagement of people with the medium, and at Eszter’s thoughts on why people do not switch from Google).
- On a slightly more sophisticated note, if the proponents of the law would actually study the issue before making a political/ideological decision that is going to affect lives of an entire country, they would see that content (porn) is not the primary threat. For example, they could read a recent study on the subject and see that in order to guard the children fro m online predators, they should be educated for appropriate online behavior. Moreover they would see that in fact the only way to block “inappropriate” content is shut down the entire internet because a lot of “inappropriate” content is generated in online interactions and not in static web pages. Maybe they would understand that there is no simple blocking solution in this case, but instead embracing the medium and learning/educating how to deal with it (also see HE).
Lastly, I think the way this law was passed adds to its own inappropriateness (here is a complete list in HE of who voted and how on this proposal). Apparently this proposal was not even part of the agenda for this particular session of Knesset. However, the shaky position of Kadima-Avoda government, gives Shas a lot of power to manipulate what is being discussed these days by the lawmakers and how. Just today another Shas-driven law proposal was discussed, aimed at strengthening the limitations on abortion (HE) and at the same time 475 million shekels were granted to Shas religious institutions (for example, they maintain an independent education system, which is cheaper than the governmental one – oh the absurd) , which is apparently higher than government subsidies to the entire cultural sector in Israel (HE). The political discipline of the religious voter is paying off, while the secular and progressive voters spend their time expressing they outrage in talkbacks on major news websites (until those will get censored too – HE), but when it comes to voting or holding their elected representatives accountable, they find more important things to do (HE). Even the Israeli bloggers who used to advocate strongly against the law (for example HE1; He2) are silent and as up to this point there has been little or no reaction (last posts are dated back in summer last year).
As i said, today is a very, very dark day for Israel…