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September 23, 2019 10:46 am

The Most Urgent Tech-Related Tasks the New Israeli Parliament Must Tackle

avatar by Omer Kabir / CTech

Israeli lawmakers stand during the inauguration of the 21st Knesset. Photo: Haim Zah / GPO.

CTech – Israel’s general election, which took place on Tuesday, marked the end of nearly an entire lost year. The Israeli parliament was effectively paralyzed, the government ministries deadlocked, and the members of parliament, while still getting paid, were too busy campaigning to do their jobs.

The Israeli government may have hit the pause button but the rest of the world, including Israel’s industry, continued to operate as normal. Now, the newly elected members of parliament must hurry and close the gap when it comes to addressing global and local issues.

Below are the most pressing tech-related issues that the Israeli parliament must tackle:

Taming Facebook

If there is anything Israeli elections teach us it is that social networks, especially Facebook, are not trustworthy. Facebook has done a lot in the past two years to show its commitment to fighting phenomena such as fake news and foreign intervention in the election process. But when it comes to what could be described at best as problematic conduct by powerful local agents, Facebook is far more reluctant to act.

Previously questioned by Facebook about its activities, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chatbot made headlines again last week when an automatic message referring to Israel’s largest minority group had it saying “the Arabs want to annihilate all of us.” Netanyahu’s Likud party was quick to issue a statement saying the message was the result of a mistake made by one of its campaign workers. Facebook’s response, to this and several other infringements, was a 24-hour suspension of the bot. Ordinary users, it is important to note, find themselves suspended for days on end, even for far less extreme and unmistakably satirical posts.

Existing legal regulations also proved ineffective on election day. When Netanyahu’s bot was suspended by order of the election committee’s chairman Hanan Melcer, Netanyahu used it as an excuse to publicly attack Facebook and Melcer, naturally, on a live broadcast on Facebook. Melcer then instructed Facebook to reinstate the bot, with no ramifications for the infringements. Netanyahu then went live again, further breaking the country’s election law by referring to new survey results in an attempt to affect the results.

The second 2019 election proved that Facebook does not want to get its hands dirty with Israeli politics and you can hardly blame it. Israel’s regulators must step up their game in time for the country’s next election to allow efficient monitoring of social media activity by strong political elements.

Also, regulators must address Facebook’s near-monopoly on instant messaging services, in light of its plans to integrate the messaging features in its three major social media outlets: Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. For over a decade, Facebook has been running the online messaging market in Israel as it sees fit, with little to no restrictions, blocking certain users and censoring content while letting others act freely and consuming vast amounts of data only to blurt it out later in the form of targeted ads. It is time someone stops this.

Regulating the gig-economy

The gig-economy arrived in Israel a bit late but once it got here, it exploded. Hundreds of freelance chargers and local operators manage a fleet of shared electric-scooters for Los Angeles-headquartered Bird Rides, and over 1,000 people make on-demand food deliveries for Helsinki-headquartered Wolt Enterprises as it attempts to disrupt the local food market.

These companies, like their competitors operating under a similar model, entered the country without any proper regulation as to the terms of their workers’ employment. Employing thousands of people, these companies do not pay any social benefits or even insure their employees against accidents incurred during the course of their workday. This is especially problematic in Wolt’s case as it also employs minors, who can get seriously injured as they rush to their next delivery, only to find they are completely on their own.

Gig-economy-based companies want to have their cake and eat it too: to maintain a flexible, always-ready, and cheap workforce without having to provide it with any of the legally required benefits and protections of employees.

California’s recently approved AB5 bill will see gig-economy workers in the state become company employees eligible for all benefits. Now is the time for Israel to also begin regulating the field before these companies become too powerful.

Killing the National Biometric Database

No data available online is safe from leaks. Be it the result of negligence or a malicious attack, data tends to set itself free. Just ask the good people of Ecuador, where just last week records on its 16.6 million population — including financial and employment information — were reportedly leaked, according to Israeli VPN review site vpnMentor.

The more sensitive the information, the more enticing and in demand it will be, putting it in greater danger as a potential target. In Israel, there is probably no database more sensitive than the National Biometric Database. By August 2022, it is set to contain the fingerprints and biometric facial features of every Israeli citizen over the age of 16.

Israel’s biometric database has come under severe criticism from both Israeli information security researchers and human rights and privacy advocacy groups since it was first conceived. Other than potential security breaches, the database could also be used to limit the personal freedoms of certain individuals or groups. Furthermore, in the six years since it became operational, no evidence has been provided as to the database’s effectiveness in preventing identity theft, which was one of the main motivations for creating it in the first place.

Once the database is leaked, it would be impossible to turn back the wheel, as unlike passwords or credit card numbers, you cannot change your fingerprints or facial features. The new parliament must kill the database before it kills the privacy and security of Israeli citizens.

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