Restrictions on anonymity

"In most cases anonymity has no justification, and contributes to the growing shallowness of the public discourse."

Orlev 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Orlev 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Last Monday, the Knesset approved the first reading of a Private Members’ Bill, tabled by MK Zevulun Orlev (Jewish Home), dealing with “the revelation of information details of a subscriber to an electronic communications network.”
Only one MK – Shelly Yacimovitch – voted against referring the bill to the Science and Technology Committee for preparation for second reading.
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The bill deals with the revelation of certain identifying details of internet surfers by electronic communications networks for the purpose of legal proceedings, in the event that an anonymous writer is accused of causing an injustice to, or breaching the property rights of another person.
Many talkbackers reacted with great anger to the approval of the bill, arguing that it is but one more link in the long chain of anti-democratic bills currently on the Knesset’s agenda, designed to shut mouths. Orlev himself was the target of a lot of abusive reactions (most of them anonymous), even though he himself is one of the fairer Knesset members, with an impressive record of legislation that has enjoyed the support of wide sections of the Knesset.
The Supreme Court noted the need for such legislation in March 2010. Judging a libel suit, the court pointed out that there is no suitable legal recourse for persons to approach the courts with a request to instruct a third party to reveal the identity of an anonymous internet surfer who has allegedly caused them an injustice.
In his opening speech during the debate on the bill last Monday, Orlev made it clear that there is still a lot of work to be done, especially since it is vital to find a way of identifying the Internet Protocol Address of anonymous surfers without revealing the name of the person behind the address before the case reaches a court. This is proving to be a rather complicated task.
Orlev also expressed his wish to find a way of avoiding the whole process simply by finding a procedure which will enable the removal of information perceived as a injurious (especially in the case of property rights), thus making a legal procedure superfluous.
IT SHOULD be noted that Orlev’s bill is not the only proposal on this subject. The Justice Ministry recently published a memorandum dealing with a bill that the government is preparing on the very same subject. Inter alia, the memorandum states that “the right to anonymous expression embodies two important basic rights: the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. Anonymity enables a person to avoid revealing his personal details in cases where he is not interested in revealing them, and occasionally, this in itself enables him to express himself, since there are situations in which a person who is unable to express himself anonymously will prefer not to express himself altogether.
“At the same time, the Internet cannot be viewed as a ‘city of refuge,’ which enables injustices to be committed or rights to be breached without accountability.”
Orlev’s bill will apparently be merged with the government bill once the latter is drafted. I strongly support this legislation, with all the necessary checks and balances, even though it does not, and cannot, take care of what really disturbs me.
While I identify with Yacimovitch’s concerns that legislation on this issue will prevent workers who wish to warn against injustices, and even corruption in their place of employment, from doing so, since the revelation of their identity might lead to their dismissal, I feel that there is excessive anonymity in talkbacks and other internet posts. In most cases anonymity has no justification, and contributes to the growing shallowness of the public discourse. It frequently encourages irresponsibility and intellectual laziness on the part of talkbackers, not to speak of nasty libelous comments that have no factual foundation.
While I myself react to comments that I receive from identified writers, I avoid reacting to anonymous comments on principle. Only once did I react, by turning to the police, close to 17 years ago, after someone anonymously expressed joy when my eldest daughter was killed in a traffic accident in Chile. “You left-wing piece of s*** – we are so happy,” was the message I received.
Of course, except for extreme cases there is little one can do legally, or will be able to do legally even after the law is passed, about injurious and hurtful anonymous babble. However, I resent the basic attitude of those who say: “Well, this is part of the modern world. If it really bothers you – stop writing.” I think that this attitude is wrong. I believe that with few exceptions, anonymous talkbacks should be condemned, or at least shown up for what most of them really are – shallow, irresponsible discourse that contributes nothing to democracy, or to anyone’s wellbeing.
Anonymity should not be considered the bon ton.

The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.