Rights groups step up efforts to protect Palestinian digital rights


Yumna Patel

Mondoweiss  /  November 16, 2021

Mondoweiss speaks with 7amleh’s Nadim Nashif about the launch of the first open source online platform to monitor, document, and follow up on the digital rights violations of Palestinians.

Headlines coming out of Israel and Palestine over the past few weeks have confirmed a terrifying suspicion held by many Palestinians that they are being watched. 

Last month, Israel designated six leading Palestinian civil society and human rights organizations as “terrorist” institutions. It was soon after revealed that a number of activists belonging to the organizations were the targets of an Israeli spyware hack

Additional reports revealed that the Israeli military has been using facial recognition technology at checkpoints in the West Bank to capture photos of the faces of Palestinians and match them to a database of thousands of images. 

Another report from Middle East Eye revealed a harrowing fact that Israel can listen to every telephone conversation taking place in the West Bank and Gaza, and that every mobile phone imported into Gaza through Israel is implanted with an Israeli bug, and that “anyone using the only two mobile networks serving the occupied territories is being monitored as well.” 

In the meantime, social media giants like Facebook have come under fire for their apparent restrictions on the accounts of Palestinian activists during the wave of uprisings that shook Palestine and the world in May of this year. 

While it has often been treated as common knowledge amongst Palestinians that Israel’s security apparatus “knows everything” about its Palestinian subjects in the occupied territory, headlines likes these have only confirmed people’s fears: Israel is monitoring and censoring everything about Palestinian life — both online and in the digital sphere. 

At a time where the violation of digital rights and privacy of Palestinians living under occupation are on par with the violation of human rights on the ground, activists are not backing down, and rights groups are stepping up their efforts to protect ordinary Palestinians against digital rights violations. 

Mondoweiss spoke to Nadim Nashif, the director of 7amleh – the Arab center for the advancement of social media, about the launch of 7amleh’s new platform “7or” (pronounced “hurr”), the first open source online platform to monitor, document and follow up on the digital rights violations of Palestinians. 

MondoweissTell us about the new platform 7or, and what makes it so groundbreaking?

Nashif: Basically this is a kind of culmination of 7amleh’s usual work that we do year round. In the past few years we have been monitoring digital rights and violations in Palestine, from different sides including governments, companies, and different society actors who have violated other citizens digital rights. 

Social media companies have been pressured for many years by Israeli actors regarding the aspect of silencing a deleting Palestinian posts on Facebook and other platforms. The Israeli government for example uses different tactics including official channels within Facebook, and in other cases where they organize groups of online trolls to report Palestinian posts. These groups like Act.IL and others are of course funded by the Israeli government. 

The companies themselves are using artificial intelligence and algorithms that work according to the US government list of terrorist orgs, of which some Palestinian political parties and movements are a part of. All of this is part of the phenomenon that we call the” war on the Palestinian narrative,” and the effort to try to silence Palestinian voices. 

Through the 7or platform we have developed a proper technology that takes the data and documents it, but also gives different indicators for us, the public, researchers, and journalists about the takedowns, how it’s happening, what kind of punishments they are using for users. 

The basic idea is that people will come to 7or, submit a report about the kind of violation they have faced, and then the staff of the platform will follow up with social media companies and try to reach out and negotiate with companies, proving that a post or page is not contrary to the policies of the platform, and the get the post or pages reinstated. 

Mondoweiss: Can you give us some examples of  the kinds of censorship you have seen in your work at 7amleh when it comes to Palestinians and the digital media space? 

Nashif: We have to understand that Palestinians are facing something we call “double moderation.” Facebook, and social media companies in general, act in the post 9/11 state of mind, where everything that is in the Arabic language or from Arabic and Muslim origin as is approached as being suspicious and linked to terror. 

So, for example, there are lots of keywords that fall into these categories that are used in their AI for automatic takedown. Words that are both in Arabic and also commonly used amongst Palestinians —  words like “شهيد” (“martyr”) and “مقاومة” (resistance). 

Part of the Facebook leaks was a leaked list of what the company considers to be “dangerous” organizations and individuals. The vast majority of the list consisted of people who were coming from the MENA region, mainly from Muslim backgrounds. This was totally disproportionate to people coming from white and European backgrounds. 

In the case of Israel and Palestine, there were more than 55 names of Palestinians who were banned from the platform, while there were only two Israeli names who were banned from the platform. 

So there is definitely a feeling of over moderation, and companies like Facebook being more suspicious of Palestinian and Arabic content. 

In addition to that, the Israeli government and semi-governmental groups report lots of content to Facebook for takedown, with an emphasis on things that are political in nature or surround Palestine, Palestinians, resistance, etc. Israel actors are the ones reporting a lot of content around occupation and criticism of the occupation. 

Mondoweiss: 7amleh has been documenting digital rights violations in Palestine for years — how do you think 7or will transform the work 7amleh is already doing? What do you hope to achieve with this platform?

Nashif: We want to have a more solid ground where we can do our advocacy work from in front of those companies. We want to have the figures and numbers to back up our research. It will be harder to argue against us when we have the numbers to back up our claims. This will also make it easier to pursue legal action against companies for discrimination.

Typically, we have thousands of cases at the end of the year that we have worked on. We are hoping that with 7or we can get a more clear picture about the situation with Palestinian digital rights, and better portray what companies are and are not doing to help the situation. 

We have successfully worked on many cases where accounts, pages, posts, etc have been reinstated. But what we really want is for the whole policy to be changed, and to create a more equal digital sphere and stop digital discrimination against Palestinians. 

Mondoweiss: Every day we hear more news about digital censorship, the criminalization of human rights organizations, surveillance, etc. in the context of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. What part do you think 7or will play in the current landscape?

Nashif: Our work and the need for a platform like 7or was crucial before, but now even more so because of the continuous attacks on human rights defenders and attempts to criminalize them. 

As human rights defenders and people who care about digital rights, we must do our work in a way that will allow us to defend better. Clearly digital rights has many other aspects that are being violated. The whole surveillance industry that Israel developed and is testing on Palestinians and selling around the globe is very alarming, especially with news around pegasus, what is being done at checkpoints with blue wolf and other technologies, etc.

 In such a context it just emphasizes how important this fight is. 

Mondoweiss: Recently leaked internal documents from Facebook revealed that Facebook employees questioned the company about apparent restrictions on Palestinian activist’s accounts. During the May uprising, many activists and journalists complained about the fact that their stories and posts on Palestine were not having the same reach as usual. Did 7amleh document such restrictions?

Nashif: Yes, so there is something called “shadow banning”. When the company, without telling you you are under restriction, changes things in a way that your reachability is reduced significantly. In the May uprising we mainly felt it with Arab influencers, Palestinians and activists who have a big reach on these platforms. When the uprising started and people started speaking about politics and Palestine, they started seeing their reach was being played with, and was much lower than usual. 

Later on we learned that there was a certain protocol that in times of unrest in certain areas, these companies employ this shadow banning protocol to try to play things down. This is not something they would officially admit, but someone in the company told us this is what they do. 

Mondoweiss: As I mentioned before, the news these days can be very daunting, and can feel like we are moving towards a future of further restrictions, surveillance, censorship, etc. Do you have hope that governments and social media giants will be held accountable for their actions? 

Nashif: I do hope that we can come to a point where we can hold the governments and social media companies accountable regarding their activities. I think it’s important to keep fighting for digital rights and for human rights in general. It’s not something you can really quit or give up on. All our lives are becoming part of the digital space, and we should keep fighting for our rights within those spaces. 

Mondoweiss: What would you say to the ordinary Palestinian social media user who is feeling disheartened at the current moment when it comes to advocating for Palestinian rights?

Nashif: People should keep using social media. It has a great power, especially for Palestinians. It gives us the power to document human rights violations, to raise our voice, and gives us a good opportunity, despite all the problems, to make ourselves heard. 

Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss