Internet Ethics, American Law, and Jewish Law: A Comparative Overview

Dr. Gertrude N. Levine & Samuel J. Levine

The Internet, devised for the purpose of interconnecting diverse computer networks of research and educational communities, has become a global communication system that joins together widely disparate populaces with different ethical codes. The World Wide Web (WWW), hosted by the Internet, serves both to propagate existing ethe and to undermine them. Communities of the WWW, as well as their governments, are striving to establish fundamental guidelines. This essay suggests that Jewish law contains principles that may be relevant to this endeavor. 

Examining the ethics and regulation of speech in Jewish law may help us understand ethical guidelines of online communities. While we recognize the basic and substantial differences between Jewish religious goals and commitments and the underlying values and objectives of online communities, we believe that Jewish law and ethics, which place broader restrictions on speech than those in American law, have the potential to positively influence the norms of both traditional and social media.

Ethics of Speech According to Jewish Law

In contrast to many aspects of American free speech jurisprudence, Jewish law cautions against unrestricted speech and mandates that individuals undertake various measures to regulate their speech. 

Jewish tradition identifies three broad categories of prohibited speech: (1) Idle Gossip (Rechilut): Conversations about an absent person, without that person’s consent and for no worthwhile reason. Even if the content appears innocuous, such conversations violate the privacy of the person spoken about; (2) Truthful but Negative Gossip (Lashon hara): Disparaging speech about others without a valid justification for publicizing the information. If the disparaged person is present and embarrassed, the speech is considered equivalent to a physical assault; (3) Slander (Motzi shem ra): Spreading malicious lies is, in some ways, the most consequential of the three categories.

There are numerous sources in Jewish law, including many grounded in Biblical texts, that warn against harmful speech and privacy violations. The magnitude of the restrictions on speech in Jewish law is premised, in part, on the potentially positive nature of speech. For example, Jewish tradition has always been dependent on speech for teaching the words of the Torah, for bringing cheer to the sick and the elderly, for maintaining communities, and even for warning kings or Pharaohs to change their behaviors. Rabbinical study involves discussion and argument based on hundreds of years of recorded debate. In contrast, prohibited speech that harms others is damaging not only to those spoken about, but also to the speaker and the listener. Jewish law also includes various additional laws respecting and protecting the privacy of others and prohibiting immodest behavior. 

Internet-hosted technologies, including social media, e-mail, and pornography, are thus often potentially inconsistent with Jewish law and ethics, in part because their anonymity and ease of access facilitate the dissemination of harmful speech and images. Some sectors of the Jewish community proscribe Internet use altogether. Others utilize the Internet for sermons on how to improve oneself by guarding one’s tongue and shielding one’s eyes.

Ethics of Speech According to Social Media

Freedom of speech (within guidelines) is a positive attribute for online communities, since the major goals of social networks (obtaining and connecting members) are dependent upon member activity. Online, however, you are a member of a number of communities that can restrict online behavior:

  1. The U.S. government can enact laws for the posting, retrieving, and filtering of content within its bounds, as long as these are in accordance with constitutional protections. 
  2. Many countries have stronger restrictions regarding posted content within their domain. 
  3. American federal and state governments can pass laws that restrict content as long as these are in accordance with federal and state law.
  4. Internet Service Providers can filter out content that is deemed to be offensive or illegal.
  5. Online communities can regulate content.

We examine the guidelines of three social networks — Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit — in terms of content regulation and social mores. Several of these guidelines can be compared to areas of Jewish law and ethics that have been previously discussed. Each of these communities obeys government laws for its sites within that government’s domain, although content that is removed from a site will typically be available elsewhere. Social networks also rely on feedback from their members in determining whether content is desirable. How do administrators determine whether content satisfies guidelines and government laws? This question has been and probably will continue to be heatedly debated. In examining the guidelines, we will raise a number of comparisons to areas of Jewish law and ethics, which may help illuminate these continuing debates.

I. Facebook

Facebook currently dominates the social networking market with over one billion registered accounts. In order to make people “feel safe,” Facebook has developed Community Standards. Guidelines specify that content be removed if it is deemed to violate these standards. Speech that poses risk of physical harm or safety violations does not satisfy those guidelines. Facebook allows members “to speak freely on matters and people of public interest, but remove[s] content that appears to purposefully target private individuals with the intention of degrading or shaming them.” This restriction is an example of an accepted norm among an online community that parallels the Jewish ethical restriction against embarrassing people.

Facebook has additional restrictions. Although members must use their real names, they are not allowed to “publish personal information about others without their consent.” This restriction demonstrates a concern for privacy similar to Jewish ethical restrictions on rechilut and lashon hara. Facebook supports full time monitoring of content by a legal team and government relationship specialists.  Members are encouraged to flag content that they deem offensive, and Facebook employees check flagged content around the clock for violations of standards and potential removal from the site. Creators of removed content can appeal removal decisions. Alternatively, Facebook personnel will suggest appropriate language for the flaggers, to encourage the posters themselves to remove the content. In a manner echoing Jewish social norms, Facebook considers these content contributors to be members of their community who should be helped to improve themselves.

Facebook does not allow hate speech, which is defined as a serious attack on a person or group of people based on religion, national origin,  race, sex, disabilities, sickness, or sexual orientation. American law, by contrast, does not prohibit speech that debases or insults groups of people unless the speech incites violence or becomes a threat of imminent violence. However, according to Jewish ethics, hate speech, even if true, is forbidden.

Facebook prohibits the posting of nudity and pornography, since these are contrary to “the needs, safety, and interests of a diverse community.” Again, similar provisions are not found in American law, yet shielding one’s eyes from immodest sights is an important principle in Jewish law and ethics.

Many of Facebook’s policies are enforced differently around the globe, since many countries have stronger restrictions on speech. For example, it is against Turkish law to insult Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and Holocaust denial is against French, German, and Austrian law. Facebook lawyers review content in each country and remove content deemed illegal in that nation. Facebook periodically issues a Government Requests Report detailing government requests to remove content based on local laws. As long as demands are in compliance with that government’s laws, Facebook will remove specified content from sites in that country. Clearly, Facebook administrators and their lawyers have to make decisions here, as they do for the removal of content in general. Although profit is always involved, a strong factor influencing Facebook administrators appears to be community guidelines based on social norms.

II. YouTube

YouTube is another widely used social media site, providing viewers free access to millions of videos. YouTube provides strong guidelines for “respecting” the community and relies on the member community to identify content that does not satisfy these guidelines. Community members contribute and comment on content and, like Facebook members, can flag content that they deem to be objectionable. Teams of reviewers check flagged content. At the same time, community guidelines specify that free speech, even controversial or offensive, is protected as long as the content is within community guidelines. YouTube Guidelines include:

  • Respect copyrights.
  • No spam, misleading metadata (such as tags, titles to increase number of views), scams. Not surprisingly, unfair business practices are similarly prohibited by Jewish law and ethics.
  • No hateful content that promotes or condones violence against specific individuals or groups. This provision parallels the prohibition on spreading lashon hara in Jewish law.
  • No harmful or dangerous content, specifically that which might encourage dangerous activity. No violent or gory content, except in a news or documentary context that is carefully documented.
  • No pornographic or sexually explicit content. Again, this provision parallels the obligation to shield one’s eyes according to Jewish ethics.
  • Child exploitation is reported to law enforcement.
  • No threats, stalking, harassment, privacy invasion, etc. This prohibition shares some principles with the prohibition on hate speech, libel, or embarrassing speech under Jewish law and ethics.

Submitted material and reports are reviewed carefully. If terms of use are violated, perpetrators may be removed from YouTube. Reviewers are chosen on the basis of their knowledge of the local communities. For example, pornography is reviewed differently in Northern Europe than in the Middle East. Similar to American law, YouTube states that while “free expression is not absolute,” “free speech must be protected even if it is offensive.” If content is not found to violate YouTube’s guidelines, it can still be removed; however, a valid court order and a request from an authorized agency are required. YouTube provides standards for posted material and reviews reports carefully. The community rates videos and flags content that is considered to be against community standards, as well as content that is liked. Feedback is integral to the YouTube community. Community feedback provides ratings for member content and behavior on YouTube as it does in many other social media sites, including Facebook and eBay, thus strengthening social norms.

III. Reddit

Reddit is a social media site in which members mainly link to content on other sites, although they also share their own content with their virtual community and vote on content relevance.

Reddit content guidelines include: 

  • Don’t spam. This provision resembles the prohibition against rechilut in Jewish law and ethics.
  • Don’t engage in vote manipulation.
  • Don’t post someone else’s personal information. This provision parallels the prohibition on input or output of lashon hara under Jewish law and ethics.
  • Don’t post child pornography or sexually suggestive content about minors. This provision parallels the prohibition on input or output of lashon hara under Jewish law and ethics.

Reddiquette, Reddit’s informal guidelines, include: 

  • Adhere to the same standards of behavior online that you follow in real life. Thus, Reddit seems to promote traditional social norms.
  • Don’t engage in illegal activity.
  • Don’t conduct personal attacks on other commentators; don’t insult others; don’t be (intentionally) rude. This provision resembles the prohibition not to use lashon hara against the community.
  • Tag posts containing explicit material, such as nudity or horrible injuries, as Not Safe for Work (NSFW) to warn others.
  • Keep submission titles factual and opinion free.
  • Base your vote on the content of the post

Although Reddit members can “friend” each other, the basic goal of Reddit members appears to be front page ranking of their content. Formal guidelines are minimal. Even “Don’t engage in illegal activity” is an informal rule. Nudity is not prohibited. More of the informal rules are about voting than about content. Reddit’s social norms appear to be more concerned with encouraging competition (such as how to get greater recognition for content) than cooperation (such as how to maintain friendships within the community). 

Finally, it should be noted that several communities in the United States are beginning to side with European concepts of privacy and “being forgotten.” California has passed a law to require web sites to offer minors an “eraser button” that allows them to remove embarrassing information that they themselves have posted. Some of the most popular media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vine, allow users of any age to delete data that they have posted, including photographs. Will social media sites give minors the ability to erase personal information that is posted by others? Will social media guidelines set a time limit on posts that contain unfavorable material about minors? Many issues must still be resolved.


We recognize that there are communities on the Internet that promote dangerous or hateful ideas. We accept the fact that U.S. law generally protects hurtful content in an effort to promote free speech. While access to the Internet eases the spread of hate speech, the result need not cause an increase in violence. Ethical guidelines set by social media can positively influence young members of traditional communities. At the same time, traditional value systems such as Jewish ethics can have a beneficial effect on social media guidelines, promoting efforts to prevent harmful speech and privacy violations.

We have chosen social media to represent the Internet community, as it likely constitutes the most broadly influential of Internet-based applications. Many social media sites have set up guidelines for the removal of all content that is in violation of traditional community standards. Such guidelines are generally stricter than American laws, blocking most hate speech as well as obscenity and nudity. The potential significance of social norms resembling aspects of Jewish ethics becomes apparent when examining posting guidelines.

Members of social media communities typically flag violations of guidelines and therefore assume “policing” duties on the sites.  They also provide feedback on their preferred content, thus assuming the duties of the “legislators” of the sites. They may even contact the posters of objectionable content directly and explain why that content should be removed, thus assuming the duties of teachers. Members have interfered with bullying and other harmful behavior, thus promoting ethical behavior within their communities. At the same time, social media communities have adopted the ethos of traditional communities in order to satisfy the diverse populations from which they draw their members. Guidelines are tailored to make their members “feel safe” and to satisfy “the needs, safety, and interests of a diverse community.”  Both traditional and Internet-based communities are benefiting from each other’s ethical standards.

Of course, it is social media companies that decide whether they will profit from allowing pornography, bullying, violence, and other objectionable content. At this time, most social media sites contain ethical guidelines that are stricter than American laws because their communities have made their objections clear. Members should therefore strongly express their preferences, perhaps requesting increased restrictions, so that social media will continue to protect communal norms.

Gertrude Levine (Z”L) was a professor at Gildart Haase School of Computer Sciences and Engineering at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Samuel J. Levine is a Professor of Law and Director of the Jewish Law Institute at Touro Law School. He has published two books and more than fifty law review articles and book chapters, and he has lectured throughout the United States on the subjects of legal ethics, Jewish law, criminal law, law and religion, and constitutional law.

Recommended Citation

Levine, Gertrude, and Levine, Samuel J. “Internet Ethics, American Law, and Jewish Law: A Comparative Overview.” Canopy Forum, April 4, 2023.