Uphold Talkbacker's Anonymity in Defamation Trial, Court Says

Nazareth Court backs website refusing to hand over IP addresses of talkbackers accused of defaming journalist.

The Nazareth District Court has upheld the right of the Walla Web portal to refuse to hand over the IP addresses of commenters accused of defaming a journalist.

"The good of online anonymity outweighs the bad, and it must be seen as a byproduct of freedom of speech and the right to privacy," Judge Avraham Avraham wrote in his ruling last week.

The court also said the critical remarks concerning Yedioth Ahronoth reporter Israel Moskovitz, posted online in 2008, were unlikely to harm his reputation since they were poorly written and appeared only once, and readers were not likely to take them seriously.

Dr. Michael Birnhak, an expert in privacy and technology who teaches at Tel Aviv University's law school, expressed support yesterday for the court's decision.

"Anonymity on the Internet serves the important goals of privacy and freedom of expression, even if the price is sometimes harsh and insulting statements," he said.

It's important for courts to be wary about allowing revelation of the identity of commenters, said Birnhak, and should do this only in exceptional cases, in which it's clear that the statement is extremely offensive or constitutes a deliberate attack.

Birnhak also warned of the likelihood that exposure of IP addresses could be exploited. For instance, an employer could take revenge on an employee who wrote something negative about his boss.

The Nazareth District Court upheld the Beit She'an Magistrate's Court decision of May 2008, which ruled that the people who posted the messages were not defaming Moskovitz, and that in any case, the Internet should be judged by a different standard than other media.

Moskovitz had asked the Magistrate's Court to force Walla (which is partly owned by the Haaretz Group) to give him the Internet protocol addresses of the users who wrote three comments accusing him of poor reporting, which he said were untrue and damaged his good name. Walla refused to hand over the addresses.

In last week's ruling, Avraham adopted the position of Supreme Court Justice Isaac Amit, who ruled - while serving as Haifa District Court judge in a case against Yedioth Ahronoth Web site Ynet - that the nature of the comments' statements, and the extent of damage to the subject of the alleged defamation must be taken into account.

Avraham suggested looking at issues such as how extreme the allegedly damaging remarks are, whether the attack was systematic or a one-time phenomenon, and how seriously a reasonable reader would take the comments.

There was no clear precedent for Avraham to use. A 2008 Tel Aviv District Court ruling held that a commenter's identity should be revealed if the court is convinced that his message was damaging, while a 2006 Jerusalem Magistrate's Court ruling held that a commenter's identity should not be revealed unless his wording constitutes a criminal offense.