Hungary: Court judgement to place spotlight on internet service providers’ rights and liabilities

Tomorrow, a European court complaint against Hungary will again place the spotlight on the legal responsibility of internet service providers for comments they publish.

Magyar Tartalomszolgáltatók Egyesülete and Zrt v. Hungary (no. 22947/13)

The case concerns the liability of a self-regulatory body of Internet content providers and an Internet news portal for vulgar and offensive online comments posted on their websites.

The applicants are two legal entities registered under Hungarian law, Magyar Tartalomszolgáltatók Egyesülete (“MTE”) and Zrt (“Index”), both based in Budapest. MTE, an association, is the self-regulatory body of Hungarian Internet content providers, and Index, a company, is the owner of one of the major Internet news portals in Hungary.

On 5 February 2010, MTE published an opinion on its webpage criticising the business practice of two real estate websites for misleading their clients into using a 30-day advertising service free of charge, which on expiry became subject to a fee without prior notification. Index subsequently wrote about the opinion, publishing the full text on its website. The opinion attracted offensive and vulgar comments both on the websites of MTE and Index.

On 17 February 2010 the company operating the real estate websites brought a civil action against the applicants, complaining that the opinion and subsequent comments had damaged its reputation.

On learning of the court action, the applicants immediately removed the comments in question. In their counterclaims they argued that, as intermediary publishers, they were not liable for the user comments, and that, in any event, their criticism was justified given the numerous consumer complaints and proceedings which had been brought against the plaintiff’s business practices.

The national courts subsequently found that the comments had been offensive, insulting and humiliating and went beyond the acceptable limits of freedom of expression, stressing that the applicants, by enabling readers to make comments on their websites, had assumed liability for readers’ injurious or unlawful comments. The Kúria (the highest judicial body in Hungary) thus imposed 75,000 Hungarian forints (approximately 250 euros) on each applicant in costs.

The applicants’ constitutional complaint was dismissed in May 2014.

Relying on Article 10 (freedom of expression), the applicants complain about the Hungarian courts’ rulings against them, which effectively obliged them to moderate the contents of comments made by readers on their websites, arguing that this went against the essence of free expression on the Internet.

The European Court of Human Rights judgement will be published on 2 February.

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