Comment is (not) free – E-Commerce back in the limelight

Last month I posted about the settlement of the Max Mosley litigation against Google (see my post here). Had that case been fought to its conclusion, we would at the very least have had the pleasure of gaining greater insight into the weird and wonderful world of the E-commerce legislation. However, sadly that was not to be. The good news is that E-Commerce cases now appear to be like buses. No sooner has one case settled, than another one comes motoring down the litigation highway. This time E-Commerce principles have surfaced, not in the context of a right to be forgotten case, but rather in the context of a Strasbourg case concerning the application of Article 10 rights.

The case in question, Delfi AS v Estonia (Case no. 64569/09), concerned an Estonian internet news portal called Delfi. In common with many internet news organisations, Delfi permits readers to write comments about the online stories which they publish. In 2006, Delfi published a story concerning the alleged destruction of certain Estonian ice roads by a particular company (S). The story, which was itself legally unobjectionable, attracted lots of reader comments, including comments which were very attacking of S’s majority shareholder (L). The comments in question were not only defamatory but also amounted to hate speech and an incitement to violence against L, all of which is unlawful under Estonian law. Upon complaint by L, Delfi immediately removed the comments (this was some six weeks after they had first been posted). However, L was not happy with this retrospective deletion of the comments. He brought a claim for damages against Delfi on the basis that Delfi had acted unlawfully by publishing the comments on the site. L eventually won his case in the domestic court and was awarded 320 Euros in compensation.

Delfi then took the case to the Strasbourg court. It alleged that the domestic court’s findings breached its Article 10 right to freedom of expression. A core plank of Delfi’s case was that it had to be treated as a mere intermediary under EU E-Commerce legislation, with the result that it was not liable in respect of the comments. Delfi contended that any other approach to the application of the E-Commerce principles would result in an undue interference with its Article 10 rights. The Strasbourg court rejected Delfi’s case. It held that Delfi was not acting merely as an intermediary in connection with the comments. This was particularly given that:

  • Delfi had comprehensive powers of editorial control over the comments once they had been posted;
  • moreover, Delfi positively encouraged the posting of comments on the basis that this would increase its potential to accrue advertising revenue.

In this respect, the comments on the Delfi site were, in the court’s view, to be contrasted with: ‘other fora on the Internet where third-party comments can be disseminated, for example an Internet discussion forum or a bulletin board where users can freely set out their ideas on any topics without the discussion being channelled by any input from the forum’s manager; or a social media platform where the platform provider does not offer any content and where the content provider may be a private person running the website or a blog as a hobby’ (§116).

The court went on to hold that whilst Delfi could not be expected to pre-vet comments prior to their publication, its obligations as online publisher of the comments were such that it should immediately and of its own motion detect and remove unlawful content (i.e. without waiting for a complaint brought). The court held that such an approach to the management of the comments constituted a justified interference with Delfi’s Article 10 rights.

This is an important judgment for a number of reasons.

  • First, it suggests that the defences available to online intermediaries under the E-Commerce are to be narrowly construed. In short, the greater the degree of editorial control over and entrepreneurial interest in the data in question, the more likely it is that the court will find that the defences are not available.
  • Second, it suggests that, when it comes to the publication of data online, Article 10 cannot be treated as an all-purpose get out of jail free card. Instead, as with speech expressed through traditional media, Article 10 rights must be balanced against other affected rights (although note paragraph 113 where the court alluded to the need to adopt a ‘differentiated’ and ‘graduated’ approach to the enforcement of rights as against internet service providers, as opposed to traditional publishers).
  •  Third, it suggests that, in this post Google-Spain world, the CJEU is not alone in its desire to create strong controls around the ways in which data is managed online, particularly where there is a profit-making element to the data processing scheme.

So put simply, online comment is not free, at least not for those media organisations which seek to profit from facilitating free expression within the online environment.

Anya Proops