How Israel’s Draconian Defamation Laws Shield Abusive Businesses From Consequence

When Dave (not his real name), a Jerusalem-based marketer, recently attempted to order a data-only SIM card from popular Israeli cellular company Pelephone, he wasn’t expecting that four days later he would be giving up on the process in exasperation.

“On three occasions, over the course of as many days, I attempted to visit their store as arranged in order to pick a simple piece of plastic so that I could connect to the internet,” says Dave — who laments the fact that purchasing cellular internet is even necessary in the capital of the Startup Nation (he says it’s because he has tried every other internet option available to him and found them all unreliable.)

In Israel, one star online reviews can be risky business. Screenshot: Google

While Dave admitted that, on the first occasion, he didn’t show up at the precise moment of his first designated arrival time due to traffic delays, he says that he arrived within the store’s official opening hours on Google only to find the kiosk mysteriously closed.

“When I came home, I wrote to the company asking them why their pickup point was closed when the shop was supposed to be open. And why — as a communications provider — they couldn’t communicate their accurate hours to their own customers. The service representative I spoke to didn’t apologize. But confirmed that the store would be open the next day as usual — until 21:00.”

The next day, Dave returned to the kiosk at 20:00 only to find it closed again.

“This time there was a note that looked as if it had been printed on-site affixed with sellotape to the kiosk stating that the staff had had to leave early that day. They provided an email address for the national service center. How had it been possible that a representative of Pelephone that very morning had called to tell me it would be open until 21:00 and that I was free to collect it today?”

Dave said that he began to wonder how difficult it could possibly be to arrange pickup for a one centimetre piece of plastic to allow him to connect to Pelephone’s cellular network — on a contract that had already been fully concluded through the internet?

A note affixed onto a kiosk operated by the Israeli cellular provider Pelephone

At this stage, Dave said that he began to feel as if he were being trolled by the company.

“But I reluctantly said that I’d try one final time.”

The very next day, Dave says that he left a business meeting early just to make sure that he could get to the Jerusalem kiosk in time. But yet again he found it desolate of workers — and SIM cards. “This time there was a note stating that it was closed today. Again, there had been no forewarning.”

Dave wrote to the company on Facebook — the only support channel he could get through to — explaining his frustration at having undertaken three futile journeys to collect a simple SIM card.

“I asked the company if they could courier the card today or before the weekend at least to make up for the inconvenience caused thus far in the purchasing process” he said.

“They said that they couldn’t. And so I cancelled the contract. It was another frustrating ‘customer service’ experience’ in Israel — what I would call ‘non-service’ actually. The only time I so much as received an apology was immediately before I cancelled”

In Israel, Consumers Can Face Legal Action Over Leaving Bad Online Reviews

Dave (an immigrant to the country) says that in his country of origin he might have been tempted to share his story online or even to publish the story on social media in order to forewarn other consumers of the experience.

But says that in Israel — among immigrants — it’s widely understood that such a move might be unnecessarily risky from a legal standpoint.

In Israel, even truth isn’t a full defense to a charge of defamation. Those attempting to rely on the ground also need to demonstrate a public interest for the disclosure. And horror stories such as Dave’s may be unlikely to meet that bar.

In Israel, laws again defamation are strict — which is inspired, in part, upon the Biblical prohibition against speaking lashon hara (“evil tongue”). (The legal framework upon which the State of Israel operates is a mixture of civil law; legal provisions inspired by Jewish religious sources; and Ottoman laws that were in operation before the foundation of the State while the Ottoman Empire was extant.)

That legal framework, Dave says, is biased in favor of professional journalists who may have professional counsel on staff who can guide them towards how to ensure that a criticism falls under fair reporting clauses. This is a luxury that your average Facebook poster — or Google My Business reviewer — is unlikely to be able to avail of.

Dave says that the most famous case on the books from recent years was that involving an Israeli woman who took to Facebook to grovel about a pizza. She used the word ‘yuck’ to describe it and alleged various unflattering details about the served pizza, according to a report in the Times of Israel.

The post went viral and the pizza store owner said that the woman refused an offer of exchange or compensation.

Unfortunately for the poster, the storm-in-a-pizza stone wound up in court where a judge at the Nazareth Magistrate’s Court concluded that the woman had defamed the pizza store causing him financial loss through the post — and was ordered to shell out 18,00 NIS ($5,000) as a fine.

But while Dave says that such litigation is relatively rare in practice, the chilling effect that knowing it could happen to anyone creates is a far more significant problem:

“There was a Facebook group called ‘The Israel Blacklist’ in which English speakers attempted to organize among themselves to warn one another about abusive businesses and service providers, of which there seem to be far too many in this country. Mysteriously, it stopped operating and is now archived.”

While Dave admits that this is based on pure speculation, he guesses that the group administrators didn’t want to continue to foot the legal risk of providing a platform for those who were happy to voice their grievances about the kind of treatment they had received from businesses based in Israel.”

Dave says that seeing the silencing effect in action is a virtually daily occurrence for those who frequent English-speaking social media groups in Israel.

“It’s common to see somebody warning others about a business that seemed to have really screwed them over,” he says. “Almost invariably a slew of posters will jump in to warm them that they might wind up in court, or fined, for airing such claims publicly. Sometimes, administrators end up deleting the posts as they don’t want to themselves become implicated in hosting something potentially defamatory on their communities.”

A Culture Of Impunity — And ‘The Customer Is There To Give Us Money’

In Dave’s view, Israel’s restrictive laws around defamation stand somewhat at odds with Israel’s frequently-voiced claim that — among a sea of repressive Middle Eastern dictatorships — it stands alone as a bastion of free speech.

He says that this adds to the frustration of shopping in Israel for consumers — who already feel underserved by what he calls the “underpowered” provisions of consumer protection law in the country.

Of the Israel Consumer Council — Israel’s consumer protection body — Dave is equally unflattering, calling it “a completely ineffective and toothless animal from the often frustrated Israeli consumer’s standpoint.”

“There’s freedom of the press in Israel. But if you’re a consumer and what you say about a business online causes them damage. Then whether it’s true or not, you create a potential legal exposure for yourself,” he says.

Dave’s solution (which he admits is far from ideal)? To attempt to avoid buying ‘blue and white’ as far as possible.

“I guess from a consumerist standpoint you could call me the pin-up anti-patriot,” he says.

“I may live in Israel, but I try to avoid doing business with Israeli companies to the best of my abilities.”

“If something goes wrong, many of them won’t take responsibility. The price is rarely competitive, especially if you price compare internationally. A service culture is often totally lacking. I don’t feel obliged to subsidize bad businesses indefinitely just because I’ve chosen to live here” he says.

Asked why he believes that a disproportionate number of businesses who mistreat their customers continue to exist in Israel despite the forces of the free market, Dave blames Israel’s small size. “They know that in Israel our options for everything from phone plans to specialist equipment are limited,” he says. “And they exploit that in a negative way.”

Citing his experience with the phone company, Dave also says that the American culture of trying to please customers is also sorely absent in Israel. “The operative mentality in Israel is more something like ‘the customer exists to give me money. And I’ll serve them as I please.”

In a system in which every negative review becomes a potential legal threat, Dave also wonders how anybody can possibly trust that they’re reading on Zap (Israeli consumer comparison website) — or any other forum for that matter.

“What’s the point in a comparison site if people who might feel inclined to rate a store negatively feel like they might be sued for raising their voice?” he says.

Dave’s advice:

“As a small business owner who has other small business owners in the family, I understand how damaging even one negative online review can be,” he says. “Nevertheless, the situation that exists in Israel isn’t balanced.” he says. “In fact, it’s totally distorted against consumers.”

“More rigorous consumer protection law would be a great starting point. If consumers knew that they had more rights, they’d feel more empowered to address their grievances with businesses directly — which is always preferable to venting online.”

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Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things. https://www.danielrosehill.com

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Daniel Rosehill

Daniel Rosehill

Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things. https://www.danielrosehill.com

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