It is hard to imagine that last week The New York Post's Web site had more hits from Israeli surfers than it did from New Yorkers. This occurred after Israeli radio announcers told listeners to go to the newspaper's web site, but without saying why.

While the Israeli papers were struggling to provide their readers with bits of information that were not restricted by the gag order barring publication, surfers could read almost all the details of the investigation of the prime minister on the New York paper's site at www.nypost.com.

However, some worry that soon the authorities will block this information as well.

What is likely to enable such blocking of information in the future is the Internet-site filtering bill that passed its first reading in the Knesset in February. Attorney and blogger Jonathan Klinger (www.2jk.org) published a post last week warning of a serious blow to democracy that is likely to result from the bill.

Klinger argues that through site blocking mechanisms to be used by Israeli Internet service providers in order to implement the law, the government will also be able to order the blocking of other kinds of sites. "It is very possible that within a few months from today, when The New York Post [and any site that provides a link to it] will be blocked, and it would all be for the sake of the same order barring publication," wrote Klinger.

The discussion on the Internet site filtering bill refuses to simmer down, but it is doubtful that it has any influence on the decision makers. Communications Minister Ariel Atias is not hesitant to use any means to justify the bill he submitted.

In the best of the demagogic tradition, he has already compared the moral destruction caused by the Net to "dangerous chemical or biological substances," to whose damages we are abandoning our "young children." Atias also stressed repeatedly that he possesses "shocking data" that necessitate an urgent and appropriate response on the part of the legislature.

The parents trust the kids

The data the minister is relying on comes from a study conducted by Prof. Dafna Lemish of Tel Aviv University, and Dr. Rivka Ribak of the University of Haifa. The data was collected in 2006, and part of it was published last year and immediately became a major card in the arguments of proponents of Internet site filtering.

According to Atias' arguments, which were published among others on Shas's Web site (www.shasnet.org.il), the research reveals that "60 percent of Israeli children surf pornographic sites, and 40 percent of Israeli children gave personal information to strangers."

Lemish and Ribak will soon publish the complete data in the journal Megamot (Trends), and they present a rather different picture than the one presented by the Atias.

"The legislation initiated by the communications minister has no connection to the reality described in our study," explains Ribak in frustration. "He constantly used one figure, whereby 60 percent of youths watch porn. It's an unfair figure. He took it out of its context."

Much other data from the comprehensive study - based on 532 detailed interviews with children and teens age 9 to 18, and with their parents - was recently published on the Web site of the Netvision Institute for Internet Research at Tel Aviv University, under whose auspices the study was conducted.

The most significant finding that the bill's drafters and proponents completely ignored is the substantial difference in exposure to pornography among children of different ages. According to the study, 73 percent of high school students were exposed to pornography on the Internet, but only 29 percent of elementary school children, and 53 percent of junior high school students. In addition, there is a significant difference between boys and girls: 53 percent of all the girls were exposed to pornography, compared with 67 percent of all the boys.

According to Ribak and Lemish, the critical mass of youths exposed to porn are not "tender young boys and girls," but high school students on the brink of maturity.

Ribak notes that according to other studies, many high school age boys actively search for porn on the Internet and using other means. And indeed, the study indicates that the percentage of youths exposed to pornography on television is almost the same as the percentage of youths exposed to this type of content on the Internet.

"It's true that there are adolescents who look at porn," says Ribak. "But first of all, they looked at porn beforehand as well. And secondly, this refers mainly to boys, at a rate that gradually increases with age. The older they get, the more they watch."

According to her, "it's not that we're happy that boys are watching porn, but there's no reason to impose laws which were ostensibly meant 'to protect' the overall population.

"The results show that high-school boys are the group that is more occupied by porn. What needs to be done is to act in an educational fashion and not by censorship. Such sweeping legislation has no place in a democratic country."

Another surprising finding of the study relates to parents: 92 percent of them say they trust that their kids are using the Internet wisely.

Even before the bill was drafted, most parents instituted various restrictions and limitations at home: 78 percent prohibit their children from giving out personal details, and 45 percent limit surfing time.

On the other hand, only 18 percent use site-filtering software. Moreover, it seems that parents are more concerned about the television than they are about the Internet: 81 percent of parents felt that television instills negative values and behaviors, and only 77 percent felt the Internet instilled such values.

"The parents really trust the children," says Ribak. "It's almost surprising the extent to which there is mutual trust between the Israeli parents and their children."

Stopping the blockade

"It's still possible to stop the Internet site filtering bill," says Rimon Levy, the president of the Israel Internet Association. "Before the bill passed its preliminary reading, many people didn't believe it would pass, and therefore did not raise their voices.

"Now there is a larger segment that is becoming convinced that this bill has a chance of passing, and people are joining the public discussion."

The Israel Internet Association will hold a "public trial" of the Internet site-filtering bill at 6 P.M. today, at the Council for a Beautiful Israel in Tel Aviv. According to Rimon, the trial will focus on the question of whether the bill is capable of helping to protect children.

The judges in the trial, which will last around two hours, will be Dalia Dorner, a retired Supreme Court judge and the president of the Press Council, Attorney Amihud Ben-Porat and Rabbi Matityahu Tennenbaum. The prosecutor will be Attorney Ron Gazit and the defense attorney will be Attorney Ilan Bombach.

Among the witnesses for the prosecution will be journalist Dana Weiss and Prof. Gustavo Mesch of the University of Haifa; the witnesses for the defense will include MK Yitzhak Vaknin, and Attorney Rachel Don-Yihye.

"Given all the studies at our disposal, the law does not touch on the areas where there is a danger - chat rooms, instant messaging and social networks," said Levy. "The law does not address them at all. In addition, according to all the studies, the one who should be protecting children and can protect them effectively is first all of the parents."

"The bill states that it is intended to protect the young, but it doesn't do so," says Levy. "We feel that this law is actually likely to endanger children, because it will create an illusion for the parents that the matter is being taken care of, and that their children are protected by the state."

According to Levy, "I believe that open discussion, in which all aspects of the bill are presented, will lead anyone who is acting in good faith to the same conclusions we have reached."