Online Freedom of Expression - With Limitations

It's not a rare thing on the Internet. Well-intentioned young people show initiative and create a Web site. It makes a huge splash, goes wildly out of control, and changes the entire landscape of public discourse - acquiring a degree of influence that its founders never dreamed of.

It's not a rare thing on the Internet. Well-intentioned young people show initiative and create a Web site. It makes a huge splash, goes wildly out of control, and changes the entire landscape of public discourse - acquiring a degree of influence that its founders never dreamed of. That's what happened to Arnon Shtalrid (30) and Ziv Yanous (31), who set up the Internet site about three years ago. Now they're dealing with libel suits from associates of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who are demanding compensation of NIS 120,000 for information published on the site.

The interview with Shtalrid and Yanous takes place at their attorneys' office at Eilon, Eghert & Co. The lawsuit appears to have come as a shock to both young men. They remain committed to their original motivation of creating the site, which has the largest number of chat groups (forums) among Israeli Web sites. On the other hand, they have trouble articulating a clear ideology: They change their minds a lot and contradict themselves repeatedly, requiring close supervision by their lawyer, Aviv Eilon. But they do admit that the lawsuit surprised them. "Basically we just wanted to do something good for Israeli Internet," they explain. "We set up Hyde Park in May 2000 on an ideological rather than a commercial basis, and for half its life it had no advertising," explains Shtalrid. "While other people were watching soccer matches, we were working on strengthening the site. It's our hobby, and we are prepared to spend money on it." Shtalrid estimates that they spend a few thousand dollars a month on the Internet connection and maintenance. If a hard drive burns out, they pay to replace it, and only one of the two is working full time, in software. The site has had ads for about a year-and-a-half although, according to Shtalrid, this does not come close to covering their expenses. They have no office. "My porch is my office," jokes Yanous.

When they decided to set up Hyde Park, they used a program written in open code, i.e. the code for the software is available to everyone, the programmers themselves can make changes to it, and forums can be set up. The two changed the code to fit the software to their needs and established the site. Since then, the code has changed a few times. "If the site has any character at all, it's only because we wrote it in and added it," says Yanous.

They say that the site was set up to strengthen freedom of expression in Israel. "When you read an article in the paper and send a letter to the editor, you go through a series of editors; you have to get past the gatekeepers," says Shtalrid. "On the Internet, that's not necessary. If you want to respond to something, enter a forum and write."

70,000 users

Until Hyde Park appeared, Israeli discussion groups were mainly operating at the large Hebrew-language Internet sites, like Walla!, Nana, Tapuz, and Ynet. The people running those sites, or people they designated, decided what forums would be set up and who would run them. The quality that makes Hyde Park unique on the online scene is that any surfer who wants to open a forum can open one, on anything he likes, in minutes, with a few clicks of the mouse.

That quality captured the attention of surfers. "We didn't expect that Hyde Park would become what it has, but evidently there was a need for it," says Yanous. "We sat down and thought about how it has grown - that today there are 5,500 forums with another 20 forums and 250 new users added every day." In all, there are more than 70,000 registered users, and about 6.4 million postings since the site opened.

The two say that only the "open any forum you please" system serves freedom of expression, because it enables surfers to come together around a given subject and a given moderator. Among the more entertaining examples of moderators who bring a group together in that way is the forum on pet birds. At Hyde Park, there are more than 25 forums on a range of birds, including parrots, canaries and lovebirds. Every time someone objected to the way the forum was being run, they would leave to start a competing forum and draw members away from the old one. Within a few weeks, someone would object to the way the new forum was being run and would leave to start yet another one.

Unlike its image, however, the Hyde Park Internet site is not as permissive as the real Hyde Park in London. "A person cannot open a forum called `Death to the Arabs.' It's against the law," says Shtalrid. So is the law where freedom of expression stops? "Not exactly," he explains. "We have our own moral yardsticks, which don't permit us to open forums that encourage murder and death. But the main criterion is the law. Hyde Park is not the place to whitewash something illegal." And how do the two of them know what's legal and what isn't? "We aren't jurists. We relate to issues the way `a reasonable person' would relate to them," Yanous replies.

Their special version of freedom of expression has more to it than that. For instance, a forum moderator can choose three assistants. He and his deputies can edit the postings by regular users and even delete them. "That's just it. If someone doesn't like the way the forum moderator is behaving, he can open his own forum," says Shtalrid.

The two deny any responsibility for the content appearing on the site. "We cannot read 16,000 postings a day," explains Yanous. "When someone calls our attention to the fact that he is being harmed by something that appears, in almost all cases we remove the offending posting. We're there to help, not to hurt," he says. "Why am I responsible for what a third party posts?" asks Shtalrid. "I don't think I'm responsible. The person who wrote it is responsible."


The two explain that moderators of the various forums are aware of their legal responsibilities. Before opening a forum, they must agree to a special contract, and they know they are required to screen postings and weed out any problematic ones. Still, Shtalrid and Yanous say that they cannot impose sanctions on a forum moderator who does not do his work properly. "Even if I throw out a moderator, five minutes later he can register again under another username and open another forum. It's meaningless [to kick someone out]," explains Yanous. This makes for a peculiar lack of control.

Nonetheless, the two say, when someone notifies them of a posting that is illegal (encouraging drug trafficking, slander, incitement, etc.) or claims that a certain posting harms him, they quickly delete it. "I'm not a policeman, but if I am persuaded that a given posting is illegal, I delete it," says Shtalrid. And how does he know? "I don't know, but I try." He adds that in an ordinary week, they receive dozens of requests to delete postings, and nearly always do so. "When you understand that, every day, thousands of new postings appear on the site, a few dozen problem postings is a very small number," argues Yanous. "Only when you enter a forum and see what kind of world in its own right we have created, can you understand the contribution that Hyde Park makes to the public discourse."

Is their game in advanced democracy worth the price paid by a few people who have been made a laughingstock on their Internet site? They think so. "In my view, the overall effect of Hyde Park is worth a hundred people hurt a year. We try to reduce the price as much as possible, but there's always going to be someone who gets hurt," says Yanous. "People who are demanding that Hyde Park be closed down don't understand what that would mean, because shutting people's mouths won't end with us - it will close down other forums and paralyze Israeli Internet."

But their liberalism does have its limits. Following the libel suit that has been brought against them, they have launched a search for the people who submitted the postings for which they're being sued. "Why should we pay money out of our pockets because someone libeled someone else?" asks Shtalrid.

So freedom of expression ends when someone starts suing you?

"Yes!" he answers angrily. "No!" roars attorney Eilon. Shtalrid, taken aback, suddenly seems to understand what it means to implement your ideals in an imperfect world. Eilon goes over to Shtalrid and tells him, "Repeat after me: Even the Internet is not the Wild West." Shtalrid, capitulating, repeats it and falls silent.