Talk-backs: Anonymous abuse, or faceless free speech?

Proposed law aims to combat defamatory speech online; would allow claimant to request court to identify alleged defamer's identity.

Talkback screenshot (photo credit:
Talkback screenshot
(photo credit:
A Justice Ministry memorandum released for public consultation this week proposes a new law that would give courts the power to order Internet service providers (ISPs) to disclose the identities of anonymous Internet writers accused of publishing defamatory comments.
If the law is passed, a person who claims someone has made defamatory remarks anonymously on the Internet may request that the court order an ISP to disclose information about the alleged defamer’s identity.
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According to the Justice Ministry, the proposed law would also allow, within certain restrictions, an anonymous commentator the right to file an objection to the court’s request to expose his identity.
Attorney Tony Greenman, an expert in Internet and copyright law, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that the proposed law would fill a legal vacuum that currently gives authors of defamatory talk-backs carte blanche to hide behind anonymity.
According to Greenman, until last year, the district courts used their discretion to order the disclosure of details about authors of allegedly defamatory comments on the Web. That ended when the Supreme Court ruled that there was no provision under Israeli law for courts to order a third party to disclose the identity of an anonymous Internet user who had published allegedly defamatory comments.
“The Supreme Court ruled that because there is not a specific law that allows courts to do this, the courts don’t have the authority,” said Greenman.
“So for the last year, there has been no way for anyone who was defamed on the Internet by an anonymous commentator to get details of that person’s identity. It’s a vacuum in Israeli law.”
In proposing the law, the Justice Ministry emphasized the importance of anonymous speech, which combines both the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy.
According to Greenman, if the law is passed, judges will have to strike a balance between protecting people’s rights to anonymous speech with the rights of those claiming they have been defamed.
“Anonymous speech is very important, but on the other hand, Israel’s talk-back culture is sometimes, quite frankly, defamatory,” Greenman said.
“There is a concern that the law will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech. The courts will need to apply caution, but this is a law that is greatly needed in Israel.”
The proposed law is also welcomed by those fighting Internet piracy.
Currently, Israeli copyright holders cannot ask the courts to order ISPs to disclose the identities of Internet pirates who distribute stolen content via anonymous file-sharing sites, rendering them helpless to fight against theft of their intellectual property.
Under the proposed legislation, the courts will also be able to order ISPs to provide the identity of those accused of Internet copyright infringement.