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Site Operator Prohibited From Connecting To the Internet

Can an Israeli court prohibit a citizen from surfing the Web? Apparently so and the decision is creating a storm on the popular Web forums in Israel.

On Jan. 21, Judge Rachel Greenberg of the Tel Aviv Magistrate Court issued a precedential order against Ofer Sadot, who operates business Web sites, prohibiting him from connecting to the Internet for 60 days.

Authorities say Sadot sent spam mail via a small Israeli ISP named Aquanet and caused its server to crash. Aquanet, whose complaint to the police resulted in the order, claims that Sadot did so as revenge against the company when it decided to sever its business ties with him. Aquanet said Sadot disrupted its network by sending more traffic than the system could handle.

However, according to Sadot, within five minutes, any child can cause the crash of a network provider's server if it is small and disorganized. His requirements were greater than Aquanet was able to supply. He claims that he was acting under the terms of his agreement. Sadot has since moved to a larger provider.

"Can the Israel Electric Company cause the Postal Authority to come to a standstill when it sends millions of bills?" asked Sadot, who does not understand why the restraining order was issued. He claimed that if indeed he caused any disruption or interference, Aquanet could sue him in civil court or disconnect him, but a restraining order was not called for.

During the court proceedings, Yuval Arel, the police representative, said that it is not illegal to spam, but overloading the system is a crime because it clogs up the system. In answer to another question whether or not a crash is a question of system capacity, the police representative replied that it was and added that so far no complaints had been received from other larger providers.

Arel quoted two judicial rulings from the U.S., involving such restraining orders: A verdict prohibiting connection in perpetuity to the Internet against a person convicted of child pornography and a verdict prohibiting connection for five years against a person convicted of fencing stolen goods over the Web. There is also an FBI decision, he said, according to which Internet offenders will be obliged to submit to monitoring of their Internet activities.

The Israeli Computers Law passed in 1995 defines a computer criminal as one who disrupts the regular operation of a computer, interferes with its use, inserts false information, accesses data in the computer without authorization or with intent to commit another offence, or infects a computer with a virus. Illegal disruption of normal computer operation is a civil offence.

"The law, however, does not anticipate the complexity of the Internet and the speed of its development," says Judith Knoller, an attorney involved in the case.

It is possible that overloading a computer may constitute disruption of its normal functioning and may therefore be an offence against the Computers Law, but does all overloading necessarily result in its disruption?

"It is not clear what constitutes overloading and who determines its extent," she said.

Sadot's attorney, Eli Gur defines the action against his client as a "violation of rights to free movement."

"In the same way that it is not possible to prohibit a person from walking on the sidewalk," Gur said, "it is not possible to prohibit anyone from surfing the Web."

An appeal has been made against the verdict at Tel Aviv's District Court.