Delfi AS v. Estonia: Grand Chamber confirms liability of online news portal for offensive comments posted by its readers

By Dirk Voorhoof, Ghent University

On 16 June 2015 the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has delivered the long awaited final judgment in the case of Delfi AS v. Estonia, deciding on the liability of an online news portal for the offensive comments posted by its readers below one of its online news articles. The Grand Chamber has come to the conclusion that the Estonian courts’ finding of liability against Delfi had been a justified and proportionate restriction on the news portal’s freedom of expression, in particular because the comments in question had been extreme and had been posted in reaction to an article published by Delfi on its professionally managed news portal run on a commercial basis. Furthermore the steps taken by Delfi to remove the offensive comments without delay after their publication had been insufficient and the 320 euro award of damages that Delfi was obliged to pay to the plaintiff was by no means excessive for Delfi, one of the largest internet portals in Estonia.

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Human Rights Centre Supports Request for Referral to the Grand Chamber in Delfi AS v. Estonia

The Human Rights Centre of Ghent University has expressed its support for the request for referral to the Grand Chamber in the freedom of expression case of Delfi AS v. Estonia. The Human Rights Centre has submitted its considerations in a joint letter to the European Court of Human Rights, signed by an impressive list of 69 media organisations, internet companies, human rights groups and academic institutions.

As indicated in the joint letter to the Court

The [Delfi] case involves the liability of an online news portal for third-party defamatory comments posted by readers on the portal’s website, below a news item. A unanimous chamber of the First Section found no violation of Article 10, even though the news piece itself was found to be balanced and contained no offensive language. The portal acted quickly to remove the defamatory comments as soon as it received a complaint from the affected person, the manager of a large private company.

A few excerpts from the letter to the Court are reproduced below. The full text of the letter can be found here. The full text of the referral request is available here. Finally, a critical post on the Chamber judgment in Delfi AS v. Estoina – written for Strasbourg Observers by Professor Dirk Voorhoof – can be found here.

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Qualification of news portal as publisher of users’ comment may have far-reaching consequences for online freedom of expression: Delfi AS v. Estonia

This guest post was written by Dirk Voorhoof*

The European Court’s judgment of 10 October 2013 in Delfi AS v. Estonia has caused a lot of controversy in the world of online media, news portals, internet-groups and freedom of expression websites. Especially the criticism by Article 19, Index on Censorship and The Guardian (amongst others, also here, here, here and here) initiated a robust debate. The judgment has been qualified as a “serious blow to freedom of expression online”, ignoring the relevant international standards on the limited liability of host-providers. The Court’s judgment dealing with a crucial issue of freedom of expression on the internet has promptly been integrated in the updated fact sheet of the European Court’s case law on New Technologies. But at the same time it has been very negatively welcomed as it should “worry all websites allowing users to comment below online articles” and “send a shiver of fear down any website operator’s spine”. Also at the Internet Governance Forum held in Bali (Indonesia, 21-25 October 2013) the judgment’s possible impact on pre-monitoring user generated content and on the erosion of the limited liability of internet intermediaries was vigorously debated. What’s all the fuss about?

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