The human rights court in Strasbourg ruled that the Estonian national courts did not violate the freedom of expression clause of the European Convention of Human Rights when they held one of the largest Internet news sites in the country liable for the offensive comments of its readers.
Tuesday's judgment is the first ever in the court's history when it has been been called upon to examine a complaint about liability for user-generated comments on an Internet news portal.
Delfi had appealed Estonia's decision to award ferry company owner Vjatšeslav Leedo damages for the offensive comments posted by its readers below one of its online new articles about his company in 2006.
The Estonian court found that the comments were defamatory, and that Delfi was responsible for them in June 2008. Estonia’s Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by Delfi a year later, finding that the portal, who had economic interest in the publication of comments, should have exercised control over those that degraded human dignity, contained threats and were thus clearly unlawful.
In December 2009 Delfi launched a complaint about the decision with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the Chamber of which ruled in 2013 that there had been no violation of the site's freedom of expression. Delfi appealed again and asked the case to be referred to the court's Grand Chamber.
Despite the support of close to 70 media outlets, Internet service providers and NGOs around Europe to have the decision overturned, the Grand Chamber found in its June 16 decision that Estonian courts’ finding of liability against Delfi had been a justified and proportionate restriction on the portal’s freedom of expression, because of the severity of the highly offensive and threatening comments, the delay in their removal (six weeks after their publication), and the 320 euro fine it had to pay was by no means excessive.
The panel also argued that the commercial news provider had been in a position to assess the risks related to its activities and should have been able to foresee, to a reasonable degree, the consequences which those activities could entail.
The case and the ruling set a precedent in the ECHR history, as it concerned for the first time the duties and responsibilities of Internet news portals which provided on a commercial basis a platform for user-generated comments on previously published content and some users – whether identified or anonymous – engaged in clearly unlawful hate speech which infringed the rights of others. The Delfi case did not, however, concern other fora on the Internet where third-party comments could be disseminated, for example an Internet discussion forum, a bulletin board or a social media platform.
The question before the Grand Chamber was not whether the freedom of expression of the authors of the comments had been breached but whether holding Delfi liable for comments posted by third parties had been in breach of its freedom to impart information, the court explained.
Editor: M. Oll