Seven top European Union judges ruled yesterday that a leading internet news website is legally responsible for offensive views posted by readers in the site's comments section.
The European Court of Human Rights found that Estonian courts were within their rights to fine Delfi, one of the country's largest news websites, for comments made anonymously about a news article, according to a judgment.
In January 2006, Delfi published an article about a ferry company's decision to change its routes and thus delay the opening of alternative and cheaper ice roads to certain islands.
Many readers then wrote highly offensive or threatening posts about the ferry operator and its owner. The owner successfully sued Delfi in April 2006 and was awarded €320 (£272).
Delfi argued that it was not responsible for the comments and that the fine violated EU freedom of expression laws. However the judges agreed that Article 10 of EU law allowed freedom of expression to be interfered with by national courts in order to protect a person's reputation, as long as the interference was proportionate to the circumstances.
The EU court decided that it was proportionate because, given the nature of the article, Delfi should have expected offensive posts and exercised an extra degree of caution.
In addition, the website did not appear to take any proactive steps to remove the defamatory and offensive comments, relying instead on automated word-filtering of certain vulgar terms or notification by users.
The article's webpage did state that the authors of comments would be liable for their content, and that threatening or insulting comments were not allowed. However, since readers were allowed to make comments without registering their names, the identity of the authors would have been extremely difficult to establish. Making Delfi legally responsible for the comments was therefore practical, said the court. It was also reasonable, because the news portal received commercial benefit from comments being made.
This ruling can only be appealed within the next three months.