Courts cannot force Internet service providers to reveal the identities of anonymous talkbackers who make libelous comments for which they could be sued, under a ruling handed down late last week by the Supreme Court.
The majority opinion, held by Deputy Supreme Court President Eliezer Rivlin and Justice Edmond Levy overturned the ruling of Haifa District Court on the matter. Justice Elyakim Rubinstein voted to uphold the lower court ruling.
The case involved Rami Mor, an alternative therapist who deals with skin diseases. Towards the end of 2006, three talkback messages appeared on a professional Web site.
In the first, an anonymous contributor wrote that Mor was a “charlatan.” Three weeks later, a contributor who called herself “someone” wrote, “I am pretty fed up with that charlatan Rami Mor.”
The third message, also written by “someone” said, “Beware of him.”
Mor wanted to sue the writer or writers for libel and so he asked the Barak Internet service provider to supply him with the name(s) according to the Internet protocol. Barak refused.
Mor petitioned the Haifa Magistrate’s Court and when it rejected his request, he appealed the decision to Haifa District Court. The presiding judge, Yitzhak Amit, now himself a member of the Supreme Court, ruled in principle in favor of Mor, although he added that since he was establishing a new legal principle, it would apply in the future but not in Mor’s case.
Barak appealed Amit’s ruling to the Supreme Court. In his decision, Rivlin ruled that there was no law that allowed a plaintiff to apply to the court in a civil matter against someone without knowing who that someone was.
“The remedy asked for in this matter is unusual,” wrote Rivlin. “We are talking about an attempt to harness the judicial system and a third party in order to conduct an investigation which will reveal the identity of a wrongdoer in order to file a lawsuit against him.
“In other words, this is a quasi-investigative procedure to which the court is enlisted in a preliminary procedure of one sort or another. This is not a trivial matter. It involves complex policy matter and therefore must be legislated.”
In other words, the court cannot be used in a procedure which is essentially investigative and not judicial.
Levy agreed with Rivlin but added that he could not understand why anyone would take comments by talkbackers seriously.
“What is it with these talkbackers and the talkbackers to talkbackers
that gets everyone so riled up?” he asked. “I can’t understand why
people make a mountain out of a molehill.”
But Rubinstein wrote that “all of us should consider how someone feels
when his good name is trampled over. Experience shows that many people
shake their heads when someone is hurt and then forget about it, until
the time comes when they are the ones who are hurt.”