EU News Sites on the Hook for Offensive Comments

Internet opinion trolls are everywhere—and they really enjoy exploiting the comments section of news sites to air their views and vitriol for whatever cause is on offer. Usually though, news outlets see these sections as arenas of free speech, and trolls can let their freak flag fly. But in Estonia that all may be coming to a screeching halt.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that one of the country’s largest online news sites, Delfi, can be fined for comments left by anonymous readers.

As Sophos explained:

“[Delfi] published an article about a public ice road that crosses the frozen sea, opening up the Estonian mainland to some islands in winter. The article, about a public ferry transport service by the name of SLK, was titled SLK Destroyed Planned Ice Road. It told, in balanced news reporting fashion, about how SLK had changed its routes and thus delayed the building of the ice roads. The ice roads would have been a cheaper, faster means of travel than the ferries, so their delayed construction, added to SLK's possible gain from the delay, raised readers' hackles.”

Well, apparently ice roads and ferries are the equivalent of box-office gold in Estonia, because the story attracted a whopping 185 comments over two days—including a few personal death threats against SLK’s owners, some anti-Semitic language and swearing.

Usually news sites will screen comments for profanity, obscenity or hate speech, using human readers or automatic filters. But an effective screening process is hard to come by, because when you’re in the business of posting all the news that fit to print in a 24-hour, never ceasing news cycle where even minutes matter online, reader comments aren’t top of the priority heap.

Delfi’s policy seems to be publish now, worry later if at all, because the comments stayed up for six weeks after SLK asked Delfi to remove them. The system is meant to be self-regulating: Readers can post anonymously, which encourages trolls, but other readers can flag problematic posts.

But now, the story that started it all may be about ice roads, but it will be synonymous with a chilling effect (get it?) of a different sort from now on.

After a series of court battles, ECHR, the highest authority, found Delfi liable for the comments, takedown policy in place or no. And any other publisher will likely be found liable for bad comments from now on, and forced to pay fines for violations.

Before censorship advocates get too up in arms, it should be noted that the court expressly said that the precedent will not apply to internet discussion forums, bulletin boards or social networks.

But, as the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) points out, the ruling contradicts existing Council of Europe standards and European Union law.  This leaves behind "a state of legal uncertainty that will be detrimental to the free flow of information, opinions and ideas."

“Member states should ensure that service providers are not held liable for content on the Internet when their function is limited, as defined by national law, to transmitting information or providing access to the Internet,” the former notes in its principles.

Will this have a chilling effect on free speech? Comments sections are widely considered important to engendering discussions on big issues—will media now err on the side of caution, imposing strict conduct standards and overly narrow assessments of what’s okay to post?

Share your thoughts in—you guessed it—the comments section. 

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