The European Court of Human Rights decided recently that web hosts are responsible for any defamatory comments left on their sites, the Electronic Frontier Foundation reported. The case, Delfi AS v. Estonia, was called when Estonian news site Delfi was accused by their government of “publishing defamatory and degrading comments” due to the comments left by their readers. Delfi used a typical comment section, and clarified on their site that those comments do not represent the opinions of Delfi. The system, like most comment sections, allowed other users to flag potentially abusive posts which could be reviewed. After the initial complaint, Delfi instituted moderators to handle their comments sections and weed out any offending comments. The system in place makes it where anonymous user comments must be approved before they can be read publicly as well. This was implemented even though Delfi had already removed all offending comments before the complaint was filed.
The precedent set by this case has already effected smaller Estonian forums which do not have the man power to moderate anonymous comments. This ruling contradicts the law already set on web content by the E-Commerce Directive (the European equivalent of the DMCA), which broadly says that news sites such as Delfi are not liable for comments unless they refuse or are unable to address certain comments. However, the new precedent and loopholes in the Directive require these sites to police their users, or face possible legal actions.
This case has no binding precedent in other European courts and countries, but the impact could potentially influence future laws and cases and result in similar rulings across the European Union. The issue of web anonymity in Europe has already become a hot-button topic in Europe. In 2014, the House of Lords in the United Kingdom issued a release on criminal behavior online, briefly discussing how anonymity can be a barrier to prosecuting illegal acts. For now, anonymous comments are still protected speech in most of Europe, however, small sites have already begun to close their comments and forums in Estonia, to avoid litigation. Delfi has not chosen to appeal the decision, thus far.
Do you believe anonymous speech on the Internet should be protected? What course of action should sites like Delfi take in situations like this?