User comments on European websites may face tougher scrutiny after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that an Estonian news portal was responsible for offensive anonymous posts. On Thursday, the Strasbourg-based court rejected a plea from Delfi, one of Estonia’s leading news sites, against a fine it received after readers posted angry replies to one of its articles.
Delfi appealed to the European court in 2010 after Estonia’s Supreme Court ruled that the website was responsible for the comments, not the people who made them. The judges in Strasbourg have backed that stance, ruling that the Estonia court had not violated Article 10 on freedom of expression of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In January 2006, Delfi published an article about a decision by ferry company Leedo to change its routes, which led to a delay in the opening of cheaper routes to some Estonian islands. The move outraged many of the website’s readers, who posted anonymous comments containing threats and insults aimed at the ferry operator and its owner.
Leedo sued Delfi over the comments and won symbolic compensation of 320 euros from a lower court in April 2006. The website has argued that it was “impossible” to manage the users’ comments and that the fine violated EU freedom-of-expression laws.
However, Estonian judges ruled that Article 10 allowed freedom of expression to be overruled by national courts to protect an individual’s or company’s reputation – if the interference is proportionate to the circumstances.
The Strasbourg court decided that the interference was “justified and proportionate”, as Delfi should have been prepared to receive angry comments, given the nature of its article. In its ruling Friday, the court said Delfi had “failed to prevent [the comments] from becoming public [and] profited from their existence, but allowed their authors to remain anonymous.”
Delfi had also put too much faith an automated word-filtering system, which the users found ways around, the EU court said. Although Delfi had a disclaimer on the article’s webpage, warning that threats and insults were forbidden and that users would be held responsible for their comments, finding the perpetrators had been nearly impossible as the people were allowed access to the comment section without registration, the Strasbourg court said.
The website now has three months to file an appeal against the Strasbourg court’s decision.
Ahead of Friday’s ruling, Delfi’s editor-in-chief, Urmo Soonvald, protected the principle of anonymous comments in an interview last month with Postimees website.
“Why should we punish hundreds of thousands of people and deprive them of the opportunity to participate in an open discussion because of 10 or 100 idiots out there?” Soonvald said. “Our mission is to fight for the purity of the comments, but I don’t think that shutting off the spigot in the only option.”
However, Soonwald admitted that “anonymous commentators who don’t know how to behave and deliberate provocateurs” were a problem. A recent survey by Estonia’s Avatud Eesti foundation found that comments on online articles are posted only by a small, marginal minority of the country’s Internet users. There are about a half million people who regularly browse through comments in Estonia, but only 0.3 per cent of them sharing their opinions online, the survey found.
In a similar case against Delfi earlier this year, two site users received suspended sentences from an Estonian court after insulting a senior judge, while the news website escaped responsibility.