Is there really such a thing as an "online brothel," offering virtual sexual services for sale? Knesset member Zahava Gal-On of the Meretz party says there is, and has opened a new front in the battle against traders in women and sex services, who operate online. Not everybody agrees, though.

The Knesset Subcommittee on the Trafficking in Women will be convening Tuesday to discuss Gal-On's legislative proposal, which would impose five years' hard time on any person managing an online brothel, or serving as a graphic artist or content editor for the Web site.

"Dozens of brothels operate on the Internet, offering women for sale," says Galon, who chairs the subcommittee. "The sites enable discretion and anonymity for customers, and enhance the demand for prostitutes." The police and prosecution hardly act at all against the online trafficking sites, she says, because the law hasn't given them the tools and authority. She means to amend that.

However, the Justice Ministry opposes her proposal on the grounds that there is no such thing as a "virtual brothel." "Legally, the Internet is not the place where prostitution takes place," wrote Anat Hulta of the State Attorney's office: "It is merely a means to advertise prostitution and to link between demand and supply."

In the opinion she penned ahead of the subcommittee meeting, Hulta argues that the existing law provides enough prohibition against engagement in prostitution: the problem is lack of enforcement, she says.

Gal-On's proposal, which was actually written by Naomi Levenkron, manager of the College of Management's legal clinic and a fighter against human trafficking, adds the words "Web site" to the list of places where engaging in prostitution is forbidden. The law already includes apartments, clubs, cars and maritime vehicles.

Unlike the Justice Ministry, Gal-On is convinced that the virtual sphere must be added to the list for the sake of driving home the point that this is forbidden behavior. In the absence of prohibition, she argues, the existence of the sites is perceived as being legal.

From the press to cyberspace

Israeli sites offering prostitution services began to flourish after the three big publishing houses were convicted in 2004 of illegally printing sex ads. Levenkron says that for the pimps and women traffickers, the move to cyberspace confers many advantages, including the fact that their costs aside, it's free advertising, and it's hard for the police to track them down.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel also balks at the law, if not at its goal. "A lot of the trafficking in women has moved online, but I don't know what a virtual brothel is," explains Avner Pinchuk, one of the association's attorneys. "Gambling can be done online, but here we're dealing with advertising, not prostitution."

He notes that the law forbidding prostitution allows such advertising to be sent to a person at the person's behest. One could argue, says Pinchuk, that entering and using a sex services Web site is equivalent to asking for advertising material.

Michael Birnhack of the Tel Aviv University law faculty supports Gal-On. Birnhack, who studies the relationship between the law and the digital environment, is however concerned that Internet service providers will inadvertently remove sites that offer legitimate services.