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7amleh: promoting a safe, fair and free digital space for all Palestinians

EED’s partner 7amleh’ work in digital rights is of vital importance during this latest war in Gaza, and the escalation of violence in the West Bank and Israel.

Over the past months, 7amleh (pronounced ‘Hamleh’) – the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media – has documented over three thousand violations against Palestinian content, including censorship and restrictions on the use of digital platforms. Its team are actively advocating social media platforms to take action on tens of thousands of cases of hate speech and inciting violence.

“We advocate for Palestinian digital rights and educate people about these rights,” says Marwa Hanna, head of the capacity development unit of 7amleh.

7amleh means ‘campaign’ in Arabic, and since its establishment in 2013 by three social entrepreneurs, Nadim Nashif, Laura Samara and Manar Ya’aqub, it has been at the forefront of campaigning for Palestinian digital rights throughout Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza and globally. Its overall mission is to create a safe, fair and free digital space for Palestinians.

Marwa explains that 7amleh has three main areas of activity. It researches and monitors issues related to Palestinian digital rights, focusing on the right to access the Internet and digital markets, the right to privacy, freedom of expression and association online. Through capacity building, it helps activists, organisations and youth development their knowledge of digital safety and security and of digital advocacy and campaigning. And finally, it carries out advocacy and campaigning at a local, regional and international level, for a change in policies and practices of governments, corporations and other influential institutions.

7or – a unique database documenting digital violations

In 2021, EED provided 7amleh with a grant to create the database 7or: The Observatory for Documentation of Palestinian Digital Rights Violations, a free platform accessible to all individuals, organisations and journalists working on Palestinian issues, to provide systematic monitoring of digital rights violations.

“We developed 7or both to document digital violations against Palestinians and as a tool to inform social media companies of cases of incitement. It acts as an early warning of violence and death threats,” explains Marwa.

Any Palestinian can report a violation of their digital rights on the 7or platform. The 7amleh team then follow up with social media companies, such as Meta, TikTok and YouTube to report these violations. Over the past eleven years of its operations, 7amleh has developed close working relationships with all these companies.

Increasing numbers of Palestinians are now reporting infringements, and 7amleh uses information gathered through 7or in its advocacy work and reports.

Meta and the Oversight Board

7amleh has long advocated for Meta (Facebook) to engage in an independent human rights impact assessment of its content moderation policies. Following, a recommendation from the Oversight Board, in September 2021, Meta commissioned BSR to review the human rights impact of the company’s policies and practices during confrontations in Jerusalem the previous May.

7amleh worked directly with BSR throughout the assessment process. The final BSR report found that Meta’s policies and practices showed a bias against Palestinian and Arabic content, and an under-enforcing of Hebrew language content. It also noted adverse human rights implications to Palestinian’s rights to freedom of expression, assembly, political participation and non-discrimination.

“While 7amleh was generally happy with the BSR report, the team felt that it fell short in other areas. We launched our own campaign: ‘Meta, let Palestine speak’, to add our own analysis, and to advocate that Meta implemented BSR’s recommendations,” says Marwa.

Today, 7amleh continues to engage directly with the Oversight Board (OSB) in its advocacy work on issues including censorship, deplatforming and hate content directed at Palestinians on Meta’s platforms.

Hate-speech lexicon

7amleh recently developed a hate-speech lexicon, the ‘Violence Indicator’, for social media companies in Hebrew and Arabic, an important addition to 7or, and one of the recommendations of the BSR report.

“The team researched thousands of examples of incitement against Palestinians and catalogued them with the analysis including those disseminated to evade social media algorithms. We divided them into two lists: the first, hate speech, incitement to violence, demonisation and dehumanisation; and the second, sub-categories such as misogyny, homophobia, pornography and death threats,” she explains.

This Violence Indicator uses artificial technology (AI) to automatically monitor the spread of hate speech and incitement to violence on social media platforms in the Hebrew language. Its findings are updated in real-time and displayed on the 7or platform. 7amleh encourages social media users to report violations related to censorship, hate speech, incitement and the spread of false news to the 7or platform. Since 7 October 2023, it has detected over 2.5 million instances of hate speech and/or incitement to violence in Hebrew targeting Palestinians and Palestinian rights activates on social media.

Ongoing research on digital rights

Each year, 7amleh issues its ‘Hashtag Palestine’ report, focusing on violations of Palestinian digital rights by governments and big technology companies, with research based on information gathered in 7or. This is in addition to weekly and monthly updates on Palestinian digital rights published on 7amleh’s social platforms.

In 2023, 7amleh’s publications include a report Israel’s Surveillance Industry and Human Rights: Impact on Palestinians and Worldwide, which provided an overview of the Israeli surveillance systems industry and its impact on the human rights of Palestinians and implications worldwide. It also published two position papers, one reviewing the Palestinian Personal Data Protection Decree draft, and the other analysing a new Israeli law prohibiting consumption of ‘terrorist’ publications from a human-rights perspective and its repercussions on the ground.

7amleh’s publications also include guides to personal data protection in the digital space and safe use of social media platforms.

New e-learning platforms

This year, 7amleh launched two new e-learning platforms for human rights activists and organisations. One platform provides technical training on digital security, and the other, Manassa’ provides training and publications on topics relevant to digital rights, including material on AI in Arabic.

“These platforms build on the knowledge 7amleh has developed over the past decade. We want to ensure the sustainability of this knowledge and to make sure it is accessible to the activists, human rights defenders, and journalists who need it,” Marwa says.

Like her colleagues at 7amleh, Marwa is aware of the very real challenges faced by Palestinians in the digital sphere, particularly given the increase in surveillance technology in tracking human rights defenders and organisations, and the increased pressure felt by all activists. The shutdown of the offices of six major Palestian human rights organisations in 2022 has created an even more difficult and threatening work environment for all activists in both the physical and digital realms. In this context, 7amleh’s work advocating and protecting Palestinian digital rights is ever more important.