EU court holds news website liable for readers' comments

The European Court of Human Rights approves fine for news site

Seven top European Union judges ruled Thursday that a leading Internet news website is legally responsible for offensive views posted by readers in the site's comments section.

The European Court of Human Rights found that Estonian courts were within their rights to fine Delfi, one of the country's largest news websites, for comments made anonymously about a news article, according to a judgment.

In January 2006, Delfi published an article about a ferry company's decision to change its routes and thus delay the opening of alternative and cheaper ice roads to certain islands.

Many readers then wrote highly offensive or threatening posts about the ferry operator and its owner. The owner successfully sued Delfi in April 2006 and was awarded €320 (US$433).

Delfi argued that it was not responsible for the comments and that the fine violated E.U. freedom of expression laws. However the judges agreed that Article 10 of E.U. law allowed freedom of expression to be interfered with by national courts in order to protect a person's reputation, as long as the interference was proportionate to the circumstances.

The E.U. court decided that it was proportionate because, given the nature of the article, Delfi should have expected offensive posts and exercised an extra degree of caution.

In addition, the website did not appear to take any proactive steps to remove the defamatory and offensive comments, relying instead on automated word-filtering of certain vulgar terms or notification by users.

The article's webpage did state that the authors of comments would be liable for their content, and that threatening or insulting comments were not allowed. However, since readers were allowed to make comments without registering their names, the identity of the authors would have been extremely difficult to establish. Making Delfi legally responsible for the comments was therefore practical, said the court. It was also reasonable, because the news portal received commercial benefit from comments being made.

This ruling can only be appealed within the next three months.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

Tags Internet-based applications and serviceseuropean unionlegalCivil lawsuitsinternet

5 Comments

tunguuz

1

A very important piece of information that non-Estonians ahave missed: These defamatory comments first touched an issue, whether or not mr Leedo gave an order to captains to cross the ice road thus destroing it and leaving mr Leedo's ferries the only viable transport option. However, so far no investigation proved neither the possibilty of corrupting the ice roads nor the lack of such deeds. Next comments were too personal for mr Leedo, a very infuential businessman in Estonia.

Obbop

3

The Web has given power to the common folks and it is inevitable that ruling elites across the planet will do what is needed to protect their beloved status quo allowing the few to skim the wealth form the many.

Class war is alive and well everywhere.

A similar or even more drastic curtailment is due within the USA with its own vicious class war that the Web is assisting in countering the elite's effective propaganda that declares that as things are is correct and proper.

If the elites fail to curb the common folks' in the USA from being informed of reality via the Web then Revolutionary War Two, the fight against an evil elite ruling class and monolithic corporations, is inevitable.

Nanya

4

Holy *BLEEP* Batman! This is JUST what the MAFIAA was hoping for with SOPA, PIPA and ACTA! Dammit! We fought hard against those too!

Andrew

5

So censorship will be readily implemented in Europe simply because it's much easier to go after a facilitator of a service rather than the perpetrator himself. What I see normal here?
The plaintiff should get a court order to get Delfi to surrender logs and the proceed to identify those who made the comments and then take them individually to court where the validity of the defamation could be tested.
While arbitrarily making the intermediary liable must be cheaper, I see it as the beginning of the end for freedom of speech. Similarly, open forums and perhaps even the Postal Service or mobile operator would become liable for whatever customers use their service for. A channel of communication becomes responsible for the carried content.
What is most baffling is that Delfi was notified and took down the comments as required by law.
What's next? Well, sites should either actively moderate (rather than passively remove after the fact) OR simply ban anonymous comments altogether. Somehow I doubt that small forum operators would enjoy hiring armies of moderators and would prefer to ban comments altogether.
Long live state censorship!

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