E-trade Committee Publishes Report - but Is It Still Relevant?

The committee studying legal problems prompted by e-trade published a partial report of its findings yesterday on necessary legislation, liability of internet service providers (ISP), privacy issues, and other topics.

Senior officials familiar with the report have claimed, however, that a substantial part of the recommendations are no longer relevant, since market forces have solved the problems for which the committee was established nearly four years ago. Moreover, critics charged, the recommendations may not be implemented any time soon since the Justice Ministry is preoccupied with drafting the legal aspects of the disengagement plan.

The Justice Ministry began reviewing the legal aspects of e-trade in 1999, including the need to adapt legislation to meet the evolving needs posed by the Internet.

In February 2001, then Justice Minister Yossi Beilin appointed a committee headed by Deputy Attorney General Tana Spanic to formally examine the matter. The committee was to study the legal problems of e-trade in many fields, including contract law, torts, intellectual property, and privacy protection.

The authors of the 150-page report explained that recommendations may be partially publicized at this point because most issues are not interrelated. For example, the committee recommends a legislative amendment making an e-mail legally equivalent to a paper document, except in cases concerning "weighty and long-term legal actions that affect the rights of third parties," such as commitments to real-estate transactions, drawing up a will, a guarantor agreement, power of attorney, etc. The committee also recommends that a consumer e-contract not be invalidated merely because it was agreed upon via electronic means.

The committee recommends excluding ISPs from torts liability for content composed by a third party, and to do so "explicitly, through legislation," which is an established practice in many Western countries. The committee did not look into the matter of ISP liability for third-party content that violates copyright, since it is included in the legislative proposals being written at the Justice Ministry.

In many cases, the committee concluded that existing Israeli laws may be interpreted in such a way as to be applicable to internet-related questions, rendering legislative changes unnecessary. For example, the committee recommends preserving unaltered the privacy protection law, the prevention of threatening harassment law, the wiretap l aw, and the computer law, despite some of them having been passed years before Internet usage became popular.

A senior official familiar with the committee's work claimed that the report's timing was partly because Spanic is about to leave the Justice Ministry and wanted "to clear her desk."

"This is a committee which began working four years ago, so some of its recommendations are irrelevant since market forces and the courts have already determined the issues," the source said. "The fact that many recommendations stipulate that there is no need for legislative amendment tells us something about the seriousness of the committee."

According to this official, a limited team of Justice Department lawyers was previously given the task of preparing computer-related bills, but was redirected in recent weeks to handle legal aspects of the disengagement plan.

A Justice Ministry official countered that the fact that some recommendations favor preserving the existing laws does not reflect on the committee's work but rather attests to the flexibility of Israeli law.

"Legislative intervention was clearly necessary in the field of ISP liability, so we recommended it," the official said. He added that attorney Spanic will indeed be leaving the ministry shortly, but insisted that her upcoming departure had no bearing on the timing of the report, which was submitted to the justice minister several months ago.

"It's true that the ministry currently has numerous complicated issues on its agenda that are more important than computer-related legislation, but we will nonetheless try to move quickly to implement the recommendations," the official said.