An End to Internet Anonymity

Is the Walla! site responsible for a user's publication of information that was subject to a gag order? Should the Tapuz site be held accountable for contributing to libel when it did not delete slanderous statements written by a user?

In the American movie Field of Dreams, an internal voice tells Kevin Costner "If you build it, they will come." Costner obeys this voice and builds a baseball field for oldtimers who have already passed away. One of the biggest myths of the Internet is that if a successful application is built, Web surfers will come.

In the case of Internet forums, this myth has proved to be accurate. It has even become a standard bearer on sites like Ynet, which allows users to freely respond to Web articles.

In July 1993, during the rise of the Internet, a now famous Peter Steiner cartoon appeared in The New Yorker magazine showing a dog at a computer saying: "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog."

This was a clarion call to millions of new Web users to take advantage of an seductive characteristic of the Net - communicating from behind a veil of anonymity. Using this anonymity, applications were developed that changed the face of the Internet.

Napster enabled users to swap copyright-protected music files without anyone knowing who was giving or receiving the file. Chats allowed users to present themselves as pilots or scientists, even if they were just 13-year-old kids in their rooms. Forums permitted users to share intimate secrets or express merciless criticism ("flaming") without having to deal with the social implications.

Internet providers and Web site managers fiercely protected the anonymity of their users. They realized that this is one of the main reasons that thousands of new Web users connect to the Internet every month. When someone wanted to sue another person for posting something on a Web site, he had to file a suit against the site, demanding that it reveal the personal details of the offensive user. In some of the cases, the courts defended the users' rights to remain anonymous.

However, in the past two years the trend has changed. The record companies filed "John Doe" suits against anonymous users and demanded that Internet providers hand over the names of these users. The directors of publicly traded companies sued anonymous users who disseminated rumors in forums that hurt the firms' stock value or the reputation of the CEO. The courts began to cooperate with this.

This trend reached a peak in two events that occurred simultaneously in the United States and Israel, indicating that the Internet will soon enter a new era in its development - the era of personal responsibility.

In the United States, a federal court judge in Los Angeles recently ruled that file swapping services do not violate the law when they enable users to exchange music files. The judge determined that the individual user who exchanges copyrighted files is the party that is infringing on copyright law, not the swapping services. Like a VCR, the judge explained, the tool is neutral, but it can be used in legal or illegal ways. The one who determines the way it is used is the user.

Several days later, an interim report was issued by a panel appointed in February 2001 by the justice minister at the time, Yossi Beilin. The panel, composed mostly of jurists, studied the legal problems created by the Internet and how Israeli law should handle them. The committee quickly discovered that one of the main problems is the responsibility of Internet service providers for publishing content written by a third party.

Is the Walla! site responsible for a user's publication of information that was subject to a gag order? Should the Tapuz site be held accountable for contributing to libel when it did not delete slanderous statements written by a user against a public figure?

Israeli court rulings have divided on this issue. Some regard the Internet sites as responsible for the content they publish and as being capable of monitoring this content. Other rulings see Web sites as a simply a conduit that does express a view - or need to express a view - on the content that pass through it. The panel recommended drafting legislation that would stipulate that Internet sites and service providers, and other Web service providers, are exempt from legal responsibility for illegal postings by a third-party, so long as these sites and services did not contribute to these violations or were aware of them.

The significance is clear. From now on, there is an open invitation to anyone who feels injured to sue the offensive users themselves. The user will no longer be able to hide behind comfortable anonymity and vilify whomever he wants without being held accountable.

Users will no longer be able to disseminate copyright-protected content and hide behind the veil of the site providing the service. The players on the Internet's Field of Dreams are best advised to be careful, because attorneys are moving onto the field and they are taking aim at a new target - Internet users.