Following up on this post, R. Asher Meir has written a new column that provides sources and explains the rationale behind his ruling. He has given me permission to post it. Here is the relevant excerpt (link):
The second link is equally simple to demonstrate. Again, there are two distinct sources. One source is that listening to gossip is forbidden just as saying it is. In the same chapter Maimonides writes regarding gossips that "it is forbidden to dwell near them, so much the more to sit with them and hear their words". But this is mainly referring to passive listening. Rabbi Yaakov Chagiz explains that when we actively seek out private information, such as by reading a private letter, this is actually considered to be like telling it. What difference does it make, he asks, if I reveal private information to someone else or if I reveal it to myself? (2)
Let us know draw the final link. It is true that a special exception is made for information that is already widely known. The Talmud tells us: "Anything that is said before three people is spared from considered forbidden speech. Why? Your friend has a friend, and your friend's friend has [yet another] friend." (3) At a certain stage, it becomes assumed that a fact is common knowledge, and then there is no culpability to mention it.
However, the rabbis point out two critical reservations to this exemption:
Maimonides writes in our same chapter:
- It only applies where the information actually is widely known. The fact that in one time and one place information was disclosed to three people doesn't mean that anytime and anywhere it is permissible to repeat it. (4)
- It only applies if there is no intention to spread the rumor. If everyone in town is talking about a particular scandal, then if I add my two cents I'm not causing additional publicity. But if I know that some people will learn about the rumor from me, I have no permission to spread it.If the things were said before three, [we may assume that] the rumor has already been heard and is known, and if one of those three tells it another time it is not considered lashon hara (damaging speech); this, on the condition that he does not actually intend to spread the rumor and disclose it further.The conditions are that it is one of the three who retells it (that it, it is still within the original circle of people familiar with the story), and that there is no intention to spread the story. Both conditions are generally violated in sophisticated web-searches. The fact that some information (marriage, divorce, arrests, etc.) is available to someone who schlepps out to a remote country courthouse certainly does not make it common knowledge. If someone then goes out and digitizes those records it's still not common knowledge, partially because it may be improper in the first place to make them so freely available and secondly because the information is still not available without special knowledge and effort (and sometimes without spending money).
So the fact that information is available to people who have a the knowledge to seek it out and is permissible for people who have a genuine need to know (if there is a court case then finding out about previous marriages and divorces could be critically important) doesn't make it "common knowledge". The sin of the gossip is precisely taking information which is known to a few and available for the asking to those with a special need, and disseminating it to the masses.
SOURCES: (1) Maimonides Code, Deot chapter 7. (2) Responsa Halakhot Ketanot I:276 (3) Babylonian Talmud Arakhin 16a. (4) Chafetz Chaim I 2:6.