The Ministerial Committee on Legislation decided yesterday to back a bill on Internet readers' comments ("talkbacks" ), which would authorize courts to order Internet providers to provide the identities of any person who wrote a libelous comment anonymously.

The bill, proposed by MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi ), requires that the identity of the author of an offensive comment be provided to a judge who would evaluate whether it should be passed on to the person offended.

A person who feels that he has been the victim of libel on the Internet will be entitled, if the law is passed, to file a request for the Internet provider to provide the details of the comment's author. The request will be accompanied by a declaration that the intention is to sue the author for libel.

In order to protect against abuse of the law, a mechanism is proposed in which the court will have to be convinced that there is grounds for a libel suit before the Internet provider provides the court with the author's details. The role of the court in assessing whether a case exists will determine whether there is legal basis to use the information on the author's identity.

Last March the Supreme Court ruled that existing legislation does not offer the possibility to require the Internet provider to identify the author of a reader's comment who stained the good name of another person - so that a suit can be filed for libel.

In this ruling the court put an end to the dispute between judges over the issue, which had led to contradictory rulings. The vice president of the Supreme Court, Justice Eliezer Rivlin, wrote that "preserving the anonymity serves important elements of the freedom of expression. Anonymity is at times a precondition to the possibility and willingness to express oneself, and sometime anonymity is also part of the hidden message in the expression."

Rivlin said that if freedom of expression is not protected, "the golden era of the Internet as a mass communication medium, accessible to all, even to those lacking means, may come to an end."

Opposing the view of Justice Rivlin, his colleague on the bench Elyakim Rubinstein proposed to give the court broader discretion and the authority to decide whether to instruct that the identity of the anonymous comment author be exposed.

"Each one of us needs to think of how he would feel if his good name is soiled," Rubinstein wrote, adding that "experience shows that many - and my colleague is not among them - do not pay attention to the harm that is caused to others and move along, until they are damaged themselves."