Court: Estonian news website liable for readers’ offensive comments

Human rights judges have ruled that Estonian authorities were justified in their decision to hold an internet news portal liable for the offensive online comments of its readers.

In its chamber judgment in the case of Delfi AS v. Estonia (application no. 64569/09), which is not final, the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:

No violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case concerned the liability of an Internet news portal for offensive comments that were posted by readers below one of its online news articles. The portal complained that being held liable for the comments of its readers breached its right to freedom of expression.

The court held that the finding of liability by the Estonian courts was a justified and proportionate restriction on the portal’s right to freedom of expression, in particular, because: the comments were highly offensive; the portal failed to prevent them from becoming public, profited from their existence, but allowed their authors to remain anonymous; and, the fine imposed by the Estonian courts was not excessive.

Of particular interest was the court’s finding on the issue of the lawfulness of the interference with the portal’s right to freedom of expression. Though the portal had argued that an EU Directive on Electronic Commerce, as transposed into Estonian law, had made it exempt from liability, the Court found that it was for national courts to resolve issues of interpretation of domestic law and therefore did not address the issue under EU law.

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