On Tuesday, Twitter gave into a demand from the Israeli Cybercrime Department, blocking and restricting 35 user accounts linked to Hamas and Hezbollah. The decision came just two weeks after Israel’s public security minister Gilad Erdan threatened legal action against the company.
Twitter blocked 2 accounts, suspended 7 accounts and restricted 26 accounts inside Palestine after a representative of the Israeli Cybercrime Department, which operates under the Ministry of Justice, sent a letter formally requesting that the company block 40 accounts found to be in violation of articles 23 and 24 of Israel’s Counterterror Law, as well as Twitter’s terms of service. The 40 accounts listed in the letter, which Twitter published on Lumen, the Harvard University Berkman Klein Center’s database of online content removal requests, were linked to both Hamas and Hezbollah. While the Hamas-linked accounts were primarily those of the organization’s leaders and other regional Hamas associates, those linked to Hezbollah were primarily “affiliated” accounts which did not appear to be those of official leaders or spokespeople. Though Hezbollah and Hamas are considered terrorist organizations by some foreign governments, they are also both recognized political parties in their respective countries.
The Cybercrime Department’s letter follows Erdan’s original letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, sent on June 13, in which he accused the company of being “largely irresponsive” and warned Twitter that “enabling terrorist organizations to operate freely and spread their messages via your platform may be a violation of existing Israeli law regarding providing support for terrorist organizations.” Just two weeks before this threat, Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who oversees the Cybercrime Department, claimed that more representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah “have switched to operating on Twitter instead of Facebook” because of the “fruitful cooperation between Israel and Facebook, compared to the lack of cooperation from Twitter.”
Twitter has a well-documented history of suspending accounts linked to terrorism – between August 2015 and December 2017 alone it suspended 1.2 million accounts for terrorist content, according to the company’s most recent transparency report. In this case, Twitter elected to restrict access to a number of these accounts only from within Palestine, instead of suspending them completely. The company adopted this policy, which it implements when it receives a legal order from a court or becomes aware that an account in violation of a local law, in 2012. The decision to restrict many of the Hamas and Hezbollah-linked accounts within Palestine, instead of suspending them, reveals that they do not stand in violation of Twitter’s terms of service, but only in violation of Israel’s Counterterror Law.
Moreover, the fact that this decision comes almost immediately after two high-ranking Israeli officials made not-so-veiled threats towards Twitter is concerning. Erdan has used this scare tactic on social media companies before; in 2016, he labeled Facebook a “monster” in a television interview because he claimed the company was not doing enough to prevent violence against Israel. However, research from 7amleh, a Palestinian organization committed to digital advocacy, has shown that Facebook’s content moderation policies have been applied extremely unevenly, permitting Israeli users to incite violence online while banning Palestinian users for posting similar language.
Though it is a step in the right direction that Twitter posted the full letter from the Israeli Cybercrime Department on the Lumen Database, as it does with the majority of requests it receives for content removal unless it is “prohibited from doing so,” the timeline of the company’s decision remains immensely troubling. As the Ayalet and Erdan-sponsored “Facebook Bill,” which enables Israeli courts to “issue orders [at the request of the government] demanding social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter remove online content considered as incitement to violence,” has passed three parliamentary votes, companies like Facebook and Twitter should not capitulate to the threats of ministers who have continually demonstrated that they do not value or respect freedom of expression, but resist the Israeli government’s attempts to censor online speech.