Does the Israel-Hamas Internet War Violate Twitter's Terms of Service?

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If so, a new way of war may soon meet its end.

Screen Shot 2012-11-15 at 11.03.25 AM-615.jpgTwitter

We're now in day two of Israel's military offensive in Gaza. AllThingsD's Mike Isaac asks whether the IDF's swaggering taunt to Hamas in the wake of its opening airstrike represented a violation of Twitter's terms of service:

According to Twitter's rulebook, users are not permitted to "publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others," nor are users allowed to use Twitter "for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities." That includes tweets both foreign and domestic, as Twitter's "international users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content."

Facebook's ToS cites similar bylaws, telling users not to post content designed to incite violence or hate speech.

For reference, here's the relevant exchange between Israel and Hamas:

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In the real, human world, the implied threat behind Israel's tweet is clear -- take cover, or be taken out. It's a bold, brutal statement about the IDF's raw power. But nowhere in there is a "specific" threat of violence. The IDF doesn't give away any operational information. It doesn't tell Hamas, "we're coming to get you." To the contrary, in spite of the menacing subtext, the text itself is a warning, a piece of friendly advice that, Israel's supporters snarkily noted, would actually make the IDF's job more difficult.

To the second part of Twitter's ToS: it's hardly clear that Operation Pillar of Defense is "unlawful" under the laws of war, to say nothing of Israel's Twitter offensive in support of it. For starters, "war" is a term that legally denotes armed hostilities between two or more states. Since Palestinians don't have a state, it's not technically a war. Nor has Israel broken any laws regarding the conduct of war. As far as we know, the IDF has taken pains to target military objectives, such as weapons caches and leaders of Hamas' armed wing:

What about Hamas' response to the IDF? A narrow read of Twitter's ToS suggests @AlqassamBrigade is at greater risk of breaking Twitter's rules, particularly the bit where they say, "You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves." The threat there is much more explicit.

Both tweets, though, would likely run afoul of Facebook's service terms, which order users not to "bully, intimidate, or harass" other users, nor to "post content that is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence."

That the barbs Israel and Hamas traded yesterday aren't very specific or direct probably means they're safe for Twitter, but not for Facebook. (For the record, Facebook has said it won't get involved -- yet.) As for the IDF's videos on YouTube -- well, Google, citing a ToS violation, has since taken down the 10-second clip of the airstrike that killed Ahmed Jabari.

All of which is to suggest -- before we grow too fond of the idea -- that war by social media is only possible if the platforms over which it's waged give their consent. This next evolution in armed conflict, in other words, could be ended by corporations even before it really begins.

And if the content hosting companies don't put a stop to it, they face other thorny questions. What would happen if one service were seen to be taking sides? Should the companies clamp down when third parties threaten to intervene digitally, as Anonymous has?

What would such an intervention even look like? At the very least, we might imagine Anonymous hacking the IDF's social media accounts -- the cyber equivalent of Iranian insurgents crossing into Iraq to fight U.S. troops.

It's hard to say where this experiment in Internet-based war will go next. But one thing is clear: social media services have a lot of decisions to make in the next 24 hours.

615436_485706451452230_1229649571_o-615.jpgIDF via Facebook
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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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