How a secretive cyber unit censors Palestinians

How a secretive cyber unit censors Palestinians

Ahmad Barakat has spent the past five years of his life trying to understand how social media companies think. He’s a digital marketing consultant based in Jerusalem who specializes in helping his Palestinian clientele, ranging from entrepreneurs to activists, avoid shadow bans or content removals on social media platforms. It’s a service in high demand. Widespread censorship has plagued users across the Arabic-speaking world because of translation errors and biases in the algorithms. Barakat’s social media accounts have attracted thousands of followers who go to him for tips on how to get their messages past Facebook’s content moderation. His job is to try and crack open the black box of the companies’ algorithms without setting off any trip wires, which can be a bit like walking across a minefield wearing scuba fins.

“It often feels like there’s a complete randomness to how it works,” said Barakat, 35, during a phone call over Signal, an encrypted messaging service used by many Palestinians as a more private alternative to Facebook-owned WhatsApp.

During the 11-day war that broke out between Hamas and "Israel" in May, Barakat saw a spike in content removals of his clients as well as journalists and Palestinian activists. Just before the May 21 cease-fire, Barakat posted on his Facebook wall a screenshot of an account that had been suspended for content violation; his post flagged keywords that may have set off the algorithm. He’d been doing this regularly during the recent conflict and over the previous few days. Within minutes, Facebook notified him that it had suspended his account temporarily for violating the “community standards.” He was restricted from the social media platform’s full functionality for two months.


A collection of civil society groups has documented a rise in content removals targeting Palestinians.

This suspension wasn’t just a minor inconvenience for Barakat. He runs most of his business through Facebook and needs access to the social media behemoth so he can put out ads for his clients or host live videos. After trying to appeal the decision and never getting a response, he had to hire a contractor to publish ads on his behalf.

The social media blackouts of Palestinian accounts during the protests in May were just the most recent case in a pattern that’s emerged over the last several years. A collection of civil society groups has documented a rise in content removals targeting Palestinians. Oftentimes, the problem lies in translation issues. In many other cases, the account suspensions are prompted by more politically motivated reasons, such as Facebook’s internal content moderation policy on the word “Zionism,” which conflates any criticism of the political ideology with anti-Semitism.

And while flaws in algorithms and content moderation are concerning, Barakat and many other Palestinians have become increasingly alarmed that there may be Israeli government pressure or direct involvement by the state behind many of these removals. They point to Israel’s Cyber Unit, a small but powerful program within the Ministry of Justice, which refers thousands of online posts every year to social media platforms to be taken down.

“What’s happening on social media platforms is reflecting broader power relations, and it’s suppressing the Palestinian narrative,” said Nadim Nashif, the director and co-founder of the nonprofit 7amleh, the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement.

"ISRAEL" FOUNDED THE CYBER UNIT in 2015 as a focal point of the state’s efforts to combat cyber crime and online terrorism. It’s also become a de facto censor of social media platforms. The scale of its operation has ballooned from a few hundred removal requests during the first year of its operation to around 20,000 in 2019, according to the Office of the State Attorney’s annual reports (the Cyber Unit hasn’t released its numbers yet for 2020).

Social media companies have also become far more cooperative with these government takedown requests. Platforms complied with the Unit in over 90 percent of cases in 2019, compared to 70 percent in 2016. Eighty-seven percent of removal requests go to Facebook, which is the most widely used platform in "Israel" and Palestine. Over the course of the 11 days of violence, mass protests, and general strikes in May, the Unit’s referral numbers rose by 700 percent, according to a report the Unit released on May 19. Facebook’s compliance rate was down, but other platforms like TikTok were more cooperative than usual."

Human rights lawyers and watchdog groups are closely monitoring the dramatic expansion of the Cyber Unit. They see it as part of an alarming trend. A growing number of EU countries as well as the United Kingdom have adopted Internet Referral Units—similar to Israel’s Cyber Unit—to crack down on online terrorism, disinformation, and other issues of online governance.

Watchdogs say that this coordination between governments and online platforms lacks transparency and operates through an alternative enforcement mechanism that denies due process of law. In the vast majority of cases, the Cyber Unit doesn’t file a court order based on Israeli criminal law and go through the traditional legal process to take down online posts. Instead, the Unit makes appeals to the platform’s content moderation policies and community standards. The enforcement of these policies though can be selective, devoid of different cultural contexts, and flexible to the interests of the powerful.

Watchdogs say that coordination between governments and online platforms lacks transparency and operates through an alternative enforcement mechanism that denies due process.

In effect, governments that use Internet Referral Units outsource judicial power to private platforms, a tactic that legal experts call the “invisible handshake,” a new spin on the invisible hand of the market. Israeli legal scholars Niva Elkin-Koren and Michael Birnhack coined the term two decades ago in a white paper predicting an informal agreement that would develop between democratic nations and internet companies. The state would pressure or incentivize private platforms to carry out actions that the government would not have legal cover to do, such as censoring political dissent.

The invisible handshake has subjected Barakat and thousands of online users to an increasingly erratic and Kafkaesque legal apparatus that threatens civil liberties. When users like Barakat have their online speech taken down, they have a very limited legal recourse to appeal the decision (the Facebook Oversight Board only takes up a handful of cases per year). They also have no way of knowing if state action was behind their removal.

Two Israeli civil rights organizations challenged the legal basis of the Cyber Unit on exactly these grounds in a Supreme Court case decided just weeks before the protests broke out. The court rejected the petition because the plaintiffs couldn’t point to specific examples of constitutional violations by the Cyber Unit. Legal scholars in "Israel" and the U.S. saw this part of the ruling as a weak argument since the opaque dealings of the Unit were the very basis for the petition.

BARAKAT ENTERED DIGITAL CONSULTING a decade ago because he saw that the digital market was going to be the market of the future. He wanted to help Palestinians get ahead in the new economy by learning how to use social media as a business tool.

The global reach of these platforms opened up new opportunities for Palestinians that hadn’t existed in other parts of the digital world. "Israel" maintained control over the information and communications technology infrastructure in the Palestinian territories and had leveraged that power to restrict Palestinian telecommunications companies and service providers. Israel’s Communications Ministry repeatedly blocked the imports of necessary equipment for Palestinian companies to upgrade their service and limited broadband expansions into Gaza. Most areas of Palestine still don’t have access to 4G broadband. Residents often face higher costs for mobile and internet use, according to the United Nations and World Bank.

Across the Middle East and especially in the Palestinian territories, social media also quickly became a political tool. Activists used its platforms to promote Palestinian voices to a wider audience—and to organize protests. For a moment during the Arab Spring, it looked like the synergy between online platforms, web users, and governments could be a democratizing force.

But the balance of power shifted in "Israel" around 2015 after a wave of stabbings and car-rammings were carried out across "Israel" by lone-wolf actors with no clear affiliations to terrorist groups. The Israeli government believed the uncoordinated nature of these attacks could be traced to social media activity. The Netanyahu administration blamed Facebook.

“What has been going on is due to the combination of the internet and Islamist extremism. It has been Osama bin Laden meets Mark Zuckerberg,” said then–Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The lone-wolf attacks became the pretext for a multiyear public-pressure campaign by the Netanyahu administration to make Facebook bend to its will. The government also began implementing a new cybersecurity agenda that it had been developing for several years to shore up national-security priorities in cyberspace. Netanyahu initiated new programs like the National Cyber Directorate. Agencies started using a predictive-policing algorithm to crack down on online incitements to violence. As part of this new cyber strategy, the government created the Cyber Unit within the Ministry of Justice to deal directly with social media companies. The Unit operates like a sieve for all the content-removal requests gathered by other departments. After taking in thousands of posts flagged by military and intelligence agencies, the Cyber Unit in some instances works with the State Attorney’s office to file a court order. In the overwhelming majority of cases, though, the Unit opts for an alternative route, according to their annual reports. They send posts directly to social media companies using a priority back channel and lobby for their removal.

What’s clear is that Israel has considerable influence over the social media company’s internal decisions and Palestinians simply don’t.

The Israeli human rights organization Adalah started following the Cyber Unit’s practices when it only handled a few hundred cases a year. The Unit caught their attention when then–Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that 95 percent of their referrals were related to incitement of Palestinian violence. Adalah’s legal experts quickly identified that the Unit operates through an invisible-handshake agreement with private platforms that violates Israeli constitutional protections as well as human rights by stifling free speech and due process.

“We’re facing the privatization of judicial authority and the subordination of rights,” said Rabea Eghbariah, the lead attorney for Adalah, who argued its case against the Cyber Unit before Israel’s Supreme Court.

When Adalah sent letters to the Unit in 2017 asking for them to clarify the legality of these removals, the Cyber Unit claimed that their referrals didn’t constitute state action. The Unit’s director, Haim Vismonsky, argued that the referrals were merely suggestions for social media companies to deal with at their discretion, which wasn’t any different than when an ordinary user reports a post.

Adalah disagreed. The Israeli government could regulate, litigate, or increase taxes on these platforms at the stroke of a pen. The “voluntary” nature of these requests seemed beyond parody.

As the number of requests the Unit sent to platforms climbed rapidly each year, so did the compliance rate of Facebook and other internet companies, from 70 percent in 2016 to over 90 percent in 2019, according to the Office of the State Attorney’s annual reports. At the same time, several pieces of legislation that threatened to regulate online platforms were making their way through the Israeli parliament. One bill, known as the Facebook Law, would have required greater oversight of the company’s content moderation. Facebook sent out a team of lobbyists to fight the bill. Since Facebook has an incorporated subsidiary in "Israel", the parliament has also frequently entertained threats of higher taxation to punish the company. As Israeli law professor and cybersecurity expert Yuval Shany sees it, the company had every reason to comply with Cyber Unit requests to stymie future regulatory action.

“The current arrangement is just as comfortable for Facebook as it is for the state, so they want to avoid any regulation,” said Shany, who directs Hebrew University’s Federmann Cyber Security Center.

What’s clear is that "Israel" has considerable influence over the social media company’s internal decisions and Palestinians simply don’t. As one of the world’s centers for tech innovation, Israeli officials have built close ties with Facebook. Jordana Cutler, Facebook’s head of policy for "Israel" and the Jewish Diaspora, was a former adviser to Netanyahu. When Facebook selected the judges to sit on its newly minted Oversight Board this past year, they picked Emi Palmor, who was the head of Israel’s Ministry of Justice when the Cyber Unit was set up.

The movement for freedom of information in "Israel" also started paying close attention to the Cyber Unit because of its lack of transparency. The Cyber Unit only reports the number of removal requests they send to social media companies, but not the substance of those posts, outside of broad categories like terrorism or copyright infringement. Since the Unit records a limited paper trail, there’s no accountability mechanism to evaluate when the government may be violating protected speech.

“We have no way of knowing how the state handles these requests, and whether there’s selective enforcement or other infringement of rights at play,” said Dana Yaffe, the director of the Clinic on Digital Rights and Human Rights in Cyberspace at Hebrew University.

The Cyber Unit has on occasion revealed specific cases of takedown requests. Some are related directly to incitement or terrorism, but others fall into a gray area for protected speech. For example, in 2019, a freedom of information request revealed that the Israeli police had developed a reporting mechanism for officers to file complaints about “police shaming” on social media that they found offensive. Those complaints were referred to the Cyber Unit to be taken down. During the pandemic, the Unit also granted a FOIA request that showed they had removed disinformation related to the COVID vaccine.

Outside of these rare FOIA documents, data released by the State Attorney’s office offer a window onto the Cyber Unit’s shadowy activities. According to the Unit’s reports, over 95 percent of its takedown requests are related to security concerns, rather than hate speech, pornography, or other categories. For Adalah and other groups, invoking security can be a shield for censoring political dissent.

“Security can easily give cover for political opposition because in the struggle for basic rights the lines aren’t always clear,” said Eghbariah of Adalah.

As law professor Yuval Shany explained though, it’s difficult to know which groups are targeted under the broad label of security. There are Jewish extremist groups defined as terrorist organizations under Israeli law, and many far-right settlers have also reported widespread removals of their content by social media platforms. Vismonsky of the Cyber Unit did not respond to interview requests to clarify these practices.

“Security can easily give cover for political opposition because in the struggle for basic rights the lines aren’t always clear.”

In 2019, Adalah along with the Association for Civil Rights in "Israel" filed their legal challenge against the Cyber Unit claiming its “voluntary” referrals lacked any statutory basis and violated freedom of speech and due-process protections. The justices knocked down their petition in April, but with key caveats.

The court actually rejected the state’s argument that the Unit’s referrals are purely voluntary and don’t constitute state action. The justices did however uphold the Unit’s alternative enforcement mechanism because Adalah couldn’t provide concrete examples of posts where the Unit had explicitly infringed on the rights of online users. In the absence of any violations, the court said the Unit’s practices fell under the general policing powers of the state. The general policing and residual powers in "Israel" give the government expansive authority to combat crime or terrorism as long as it doesn’t undermine human rights.

The court’s ruling on the alternative enforcement sets a troubling legal precedent for Internet Referral Units in other countries like France and the U.K. These units have shown a similar aptitude for eroding civil liberties.

The ruling also put Adalah in a catch-22. Eghbariah and his fellow attorneys couldn’t provide any examples of violations and thus lost the case because the Unit doesn’t make the contents of its takedown requests public. The court seemed to recognize this flaw in its decision. In a victory for freedom of information advocates, the court urged the Unit to start recording the content of their referrals for transparency purposes. The justices also recommended that the Israeli parliament pass legislation to set up oversight of the Unit’s practices.

“We actually saw this as an important part of the decision because it recognized the transparency flaws we were pointing out,” said Yaffe, the Hebrew University professor, who represented the Freedom of Information Association in the case and submitted an amicus curiae brief.

While the new transparency measures haven’t gone into effect yet, the Unit is taking the court’s recommendation seriously. In June, they assembled a roundtable discussion with privacy and freedom of information advocates to help develop more accountability.

Greater transparency of the Unit could reveal new information about its takedown requests and lead to further legal action.

“Once an organization identifies a specific victim of the Unit’s takedown requests through a leak or transparency reports, then it could open the case back up,” said Shany.

Since his account suspension in May, Barakat banded together with other digital rights advocates and artificial-intelligence experts to start an awareness campaign, called End Digital Execution. Within three weeks of launching, their Facebook page accumulated over 150,000 followers. Their goal is to work with Facebook to try and address biases in their algorithm that target Arabic-speaking users.

“I was never a particularly political person,” said Barakat, “but because of our situation we have to speak up and help others learn how to speak through social media.”

Source: This article fisrt appeared in The American Prospect