With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promising
to wipe the country off the map and maximum security prisoners on the loose – it was easy to understand the bewilderment of the dozen or so talkbackers who found themselves spending the better part of Wednesday morning in the Knesset lecture hall.
But no matter what existential crisis may be going on in the real world, Knesset members nevertheless found the time to deal with the virtual world – and your freedom of speech.
And so it would appear that the Israeli obsession with immediately responding to every internet piece, be it about Qassams, Beitar Jerusalem's shoddy defense or the daily update on pop-princess Ninet Tieb's hairstyle – has become a matter of national concern.
"They've turned us into enemies of the state," says Yair, 27, who made his internet career as Dave 51 – one of the most recognized pseudonyms in the Israeli talkback scene.
Quite a few of these celebrity talkbackers chose to take off their virtual masks on Wednesday, choosing to face those who they believe would have them censored devoid of any technological trappings.
And so as representatives of their community the group sat and listened with growing fury as Knesset members took turns vilifying their passion – without the possibility to reach for their keyboards and instantly lashing back with a clever ditty or emoticon.
"Sometimes I feel like talkbackers are afraid to come out of the closet," sighs Dave 51, "it's because we're treated as though we're as bad as Benny Sela.
It's true that there are some people who give us a bad name, but most of us are completely ordinary people.
"You can't forget that talkbackers aren't professionals just looking to berate people all day long, these are ordinary guys – wealthy CEO's alongside high-school students, truck drivers alongside pilots – all simply asking to express their opinions on topics they feel are important to them," he adds.
MK Israel Hasson – just mention that name these days and you will have accomplished the heftiest of feats; rallying together all Israeli talkbackers, no matter their political/sports/socio-economic opinion. MK Hasson (Israel Our Home) has been working tirelessly to promote his proposed bill throughout the lawmaking halls. The bill – if approved – will require the internet websites to identify and tag every talkbacker who clicks on the talkback button.
MK Hasson says he's tired of reading the outrageous slander, malicious rumors and run-of-the-mill tasteless replies posted online. The only way to restore any sense of cordiality is to remove the anonymity factor from the talkback trend. Deny them that cozy shadow to hide behind says MK Hasson, and we'll see how many people are willing to openly say such extreme things.
"I'm not seeking censorship," said MK Hasson, "I only want people to know they must take responsibility for the words they write – just as they are responsible for what they say before a live audience."
Unsurprisingly those who came to stand by the talkbackers were the website managers. No talkbacks = a dramatic plunge in their ratings, not to mention the resources they will be required to allocate in the interest of identifying the talkbackers. "No matter how you try to beautify these initiatives as way to protect people's reputations, we're ultimately talking about a form of censorship," said Ynet.co.il editor Yon Feder, "this is an attempt to shut down the most direct and authentic means of expression available to a regular citizen."
Walla news editor Avi Meshulam agreed, adding that every talkback is authorized by trained employees of the website who go over every response before allowing it to hit the web. "If it's an opinion, no matter how distasteful I find it, I'll authorize it in the name of free speech – so long as it isn't explicitly slanderous or poses a threat to national security," said Meshulam.
For now the matter remains unresolved as the bill has yet been brought to a Knesset vote, the talkbackers however left the meeting sorely disappointed. "I only wanted to tell them that we represent the people, all of the public but they wouldn't really let me talk," said Dave 51. "But it's not that bad," he added with a smile, "when I get home I'll make sure to get my point across with my keyboard."