|Amir Hetsroni, Ariel Atias |
Big brother in Israel?
Communication minister and academician debate internet censorship bill
Ariel Atias, Amir Hetsroni
Last week, the Ministerial Legislation Committee approved Knesset Member Amnon Cohen's bill, which aims to protect children against harmful content on the internet, including exposure to violence, sex, and gambling. Those who argue there is no real need for this bill are wrong.
A study led by Professor Dafna Lemish from Tel Aviv University and Dr Rivka Ribak from the University of Haifa revealed that 60 percent of Israeli children surf on pornographic websites, 40 percent have provided personal details to strangers online, and 35 percent were exposed to horrors and violent content online.
In addition to these figures, about 47 percent of Israeli children have a computer in their room and can surf privately, while in most cases parents are unaware they may be exposed to harmful websites. All of this amounts to a critical mass.
Let's put it on the table: Would you allow your young child to cross a busy road without an escort? Would you allow him or her to be exposed to dangerous chemical or biological substances? Clearly the answer is no.
Children are being exposed to dangerous and improper materials. This is not propaganda or a case of scaremongering – rather, these are facts. Indeed, these are shocking figures that must be addressed and handled creatively. Should these figures be addressed and can it be done? The answer is certain: yes, we can and we should. Now we need to examine the proper and proportional way to do so.
On the one hand, we should allow people the freedom to do what they want and closely protect privacy rights. On the other hand, we should make the utmost effort to protect children from such phenomena.
I present an existing problem. Now, we can stick our heads in the sand and resort to numerous cynical excuses that screening websites would turn us into an intolerant country and so on. An enlightened country is supposed to allow its citizens free access to the media, protect privacy rights, and safeguard the freedom of expression as much as possible. Yet an enlightened country should also safeguard the rights of its children as well as the important value of "protecting minors."
I believe that on this front, the right approach is to act just like my predecessors did and in the manner outlined by the High Court of Justice. Ehud Olmert, when he served as communications minister, limited the ability to access improper content through cellular phones. Those interested in surfing through their cell phones need to key in a personal code. The High Court as well, in a constitutive ruling by an extended panel of 11 justices, decided that access to adult channels on television will be encoded. Why so? In order to protect children from content that may harm them.
It is clear that in legal terms we are talking about a different platform and different legislation, and therefore when it comes to the internet we chose to come up with a proportional and reasonable solution. If a customer is interested in surfing, he or she will have to confirm that they are aware of all sorts of harmful content, and then they can surf as much as they want, wherever they want.
As to those arguing that we should make do with internet providers informing their customers of the existence of harmful websites, I must note that for the past two and a half years, internet providers are already obligated to inform their clients regarding the presence of harmful websites. The study I quoted earlier proves this is ineffective. Period.
Therefore, we had to come up with a more creative solution. All of those who are scared that the State will monitor and maintain lists of various internet users should be reminded that customers' surfing habits, including those of customers who browse pornographic websites, are known to internet providers. Therefore, the legislation will not change a thing when it comes to information they possess in any case.
It is too bad that a few elements are scaring the public. The many positive responses we receive at the Communications Ministry, both from professionals and from citizens, encourage us and prove to us that we have adopted the proper and proportional approach.
The body that will decide about the proper definition for abomination, violence and gambling would be a professional independent committee made up of representatives from the National Council for the Child, Education Ministry, Ministry of Culture, and Justice Ministry. Those who claim that the legislator or the communications minister would be the ones who exercise censorship are misleading.
On a final note, I will quote Justice Mishael Cheshin, who up until recently served as the Supreme Court's Deputy Chief Justice: "Minors should be protected against pornographic content, pedophilia and severe violence on the internet…I'm not sure I would take the path of censoring pornography, but in all matters pertaining to protecting minors from harmful content, I would go all the way."
The writer serves as communications minister and is a member of the Shas party
Ariel Atias' and Amnon Cohen's bill, aimed at preventing access to pornographic websites without first receiving an explicit demand from surfers and a pledge they are 18 years of age and above, has been harshly criticized. Responding to arguments that pertain to undermining the freedom of expression and privacy, the minister says he only wishes to protect our children.
The minister says we are not talking about blocking access hermetically, but rather, only about an attempt to assist innocent surfers who are uninterested in being exposed to blatant sex. He also says the principle of media screening is acceptable to the Supreme Court and is also common in other democratic countries. The minister is right on the last point: The censorship he wishes to introduce has already been tried in other western countries and on other media, but without success.
In the United States, for example, the Clinton Administration attempted to clear television of sex and violence through the V-Chip, cutting edge '90s technology that was installed in every television set and aimed to mark and filter violent and sexual programs, thus bringing viewers to a utopian world where a slight slap on the buttocks constitutes severe violence and a dry kiss on the cheek becomes a bold sexual encounter.
Surprisingly, it turned out that television stations actually aspired to have programs marked as "sexy and violent," in order to entice young viewers to sample the forbidden fruit – this should be brought to the attention of the Israeli communications minister, who may believe that respected websites will aim to steer clear from the pornographic designation.
The American experience showed that the V-Chip inflated the bank accounts of television manufacturers, who were quick to pass on the added cost to the consumer – this should be brought to the attention of our justice minister, who objects to online pornography screening being undertaken at the surfers' expense.
American television, by the way, has remained violent and sexy for the pleasure of the viewing public, and despite the plethora of violence and sex on television, the incidence of violent crime is actually on the decline since the '90s.
But Bill Clinton, the V-Chip, and possibly television too in the traditional sense belong to history. The present belongs to the internet. Minister Atias argues that technologically it is possible to screen most pornographic and sexual websites. Computer experts disagree, but even if he is right, I as a media researcher still need to see the "smoking gun" that would provide that exposure to sexual and violent content in the media in general and online in particular is dangerous to the public to such extent that it must be blocked.
Despite the plethora of dubious websites, not to mention local and international television stations that offer the Israeli consumer all sorts of soft and hardcore erotica, figures released by the Israel Police show that violent and sexual offences are in decline since the beginning of the millennium.
The fact that the Israeli media enjoy reporting these sex crimes because of their juiciness, particularly when the suspects are public figures, does not make these crimes common. The vast majority of them apparently stem from flawed education, criminal environment, and a psychological and biological inability to control one's urges.
Studies show that the contribution of the internet to sexual offences is marginal, which doesn't stop many politicians, both religious and secular, from hinting the media is at fault. Whether we are talking about television (in the '90s) or the internet (these days,) this is a convenient and readily available scapegoat.
So where do pornographic websites lead to? The common answer, which many adolescents are familiar with, is sexual arousal and self-induced sexual relief. Indeed, masturbation constitutes spilling sperm in vain according to Judaism, yet it is doubtful whether even in a religious state there would be laws that limit a person's right to masturbate in front of the computer at his own home.
Dr Hetsroni is a senior communication lecturer at the Jezreel Valley College
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