In a surprise decision, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg has ruled that the Estonian news site Delfi may be held responsible for anonymous and allegedly defamatory comments from its readers. As the digital rights organization Access notes, this goes against the European Union’s e-commerce directive, which “guarantees liability protection for intermediaries that implement notice-and-takedown mechanisms on third-party comments.” As such, Peter Micek, Senior Policy Counsel at Access, says the ECHR judgment has “dramatically shifted the internet away from the free expression and privacy protections that created the internet as we know it.”
A post from the Media Legal Defence Initiative summarizes the reasons why the court came to this unexpected decision. The ECHR cited “the ‘extreme’ nature of the comments which the court considered to amount to hate speech, the fact that they were published on a professionally-run and commercial news website,” as well as the “insufficient measures taken by Delfi to weed out the comments in question and the low likelihood of a prosecution of the users who posted the comments,” and the moderate sanction imposed on Delfi.
In the wake of this judgment, the legal situation is complicated. In an e-mail to Ars, T J McIntyre, who is a lecturer in law and Chairman of Digital Rights Ireland, the lead organization that won an important victory against EU data retention in the Court of Justice of the European Union last year, explained where things now stand. “Today’s decision doesn’t have any direct legal effect. It simply finds that Estonia’s laws on site liability aren’t incompatible with the ECHR. It doesn’t directly require any change in national or EU law. Indirectly, however, it may be influential in further development of the law in a way which undermines freedom of expression. As a decision of the Grand Chamber of the ECHR it will be given weight by other courts and by legislative bodies.”
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