Police do not have the right to ban access to gambling sites, or other sites that encourage illicit or even criminal activity, a Tel Aviv court ruled last week. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit by the Israel Internet Association (ISOC) against the Israel Police, which issued an order requiring the country’s top Internet service providers to block access to a list of gambling sites located abroad, but frequented by Israelis.

The court ruled that the police had no authority to issue the order, which dates to June 2011. At the time, Israeli ISPs complied with the order, and in August, ISOC filed a petition against the order.

The decision by Tel Aviv District Court judge Michal Rubinstein focused on three aspects of ISOC’s petition: whether limiting access to Internet sites interfered with freedom to access information; whether current law allowed police to impose a ban on virtual gaming sites (as they would on a physical casino); and whether ISOC was eligible to request in the name of Israeli Internet users that the order be rescinded.

In what ISOC said was a landmark and precedent-setting decision, the court said that current laws allow Israelis full access to information of all types on the Internet, even if that information could be used for illicit or illegal activities. “Even if the information on a site is wholly negative and serves no positive social role, such as on a site that promotes racism or drug use, it is still information and is covered by laws dealing with freedom of expression,” Rubinstein wrote.

“Clearly, gambling not approved by the state is a negative social phenomenon, but that in itself is not a reason to restrict that information. By blocking the gambling sites, the freedom of Israelis to access information was damaged, since they could not access the site to get the information stored there,” Rubinstein said, adding that while she certainly agreed that there was information on the Internet that “deserved” to be banned, “the damage that this information can cause does not make it eligible for protection.”

Since the issue at stake is freedom to access information, the judge said, the attempt by police to ban Internet gambling sites in the same way they prevent access to illegal physical casinos is not valid. Unless specific legislation is passed to connect the two phenomena, the police cannot shut down such sites on the basis of existing laws. The court also ruled that ISOC could act as a representative of all Internet users, as similar organizations do in the U.S. and Europe.

Rimon Levy, a member of the ISOC Board of Directors, said that the organization was “very pleased” with the decision. “Our aim is to prevent restriction of access to information and undue damage to freedom of expression and speech. Our petition was not directed at encouraging online gambling, but to prevent the police from imposing limits on access to information.” Had the police pursued the owners of the gambling sites, Levy said, ISOC would have had no problem and would not have filed any petitions. “Instead, the police decided to take on the roles of investigator, prosecutor, and judge,” Levy added. “The idea that the police would decide what is protected speech is simply chilling.”