The European Court of Human Rights has done itself no favours with bloggers by upholding an absurd and outrageous judgement making websites liable for any comment published on their sites.
As I reported over a year ago the court had already ruled that judges have made the extraordinary decision to hold news sites and blogs legally responsible for all the comments put up on their site even if they take them down after a complaint.
Effectively it meant that any offended party can pursue a news organisation or blog for any defamatory comment made about them EVEN after it has been removed from the website.
The ruling follows a dispute after a said to be respected Estonian news organisation,Delfi,ran a piece about a ferry company making controversial changes to its routes. The changes to remote Estonian islands attracted widespread criticism including an attack on their owners from anonymous bloggers who put comments on the site. A major shareholder in the company took offence at the comments and decided to sue. The website took them down but the owner decided to pursue the site – not the commentators – saying it should be legally responsible for checking every single comment before it is published..
Now the grand chamber of the court has upheld this absurd decision – saying that it is up to professional bloggers to legally check any comment before it is public – effectively saying they should act like Mystic Meg in predicting whether any comment is offensive. Not surprisingly this has attracted a vehement response in the United States and Europe who see the ruling as dangerous and damaging to free speech. Both the respected Inforrm blog and a US website Techdirt have issued particularly harsh criticism.
Techdirt describes the decision as a disaster for free speech and the decision as ” absolutely crazy”.
The only exceptions to this ruling appear to be internet forums and people who run their websites as non commercial ventures or as the judgement says ” as a hobby”. The only reason for this is evidently the judges thought people with hobbies shouldn’t be expected to have to employ lawyers to check their every move. But ” freedom of expression” should not be confined to those who have hobbies.
The main effect according to one of two dissenting judges would amount to :” an invitation to self-censorship at its worst.”
Luckily the UK has a Defamation Act that does the opposite – putting the onus on the people who post comments not the website and has procedures to sort out a dispute.
But it would only take one wealthy, vindictive person angered by a comment to go to the ECHR citing this judgement. And then we would in for a battle between British law and the European Court ruling.
Frankly if Michael Gove, the justice secretary, got hold of this judgement – he would have a good case to damn the court. And in this case he would be right.