This case concerned an online news site’s liability for reputational harm to a business caused when Internet users posted false and offensive statements in the news site’s comments section. Defendant news site honored removal notices but didn’t actively police all of its users’ comments. Hungarian courts ruled that the site was liable, even before it knew about the comments.
The ECtHR disagreed. It said that such a standard, which would effectively compel the platform to proactively find and remove every user comments, “amounts to requiring excessive and impracticable forethought capable of undermining freedom of the right to impart information on the Internet[.]” Accordingly, the Hungarian court’s ruling violated Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Per the ECtHR, the lower court’s mistake was that it “paid no heed to what was at stake for the applicants as protagonists of the free electronic media. They did not embark on any assessment of how the application of civil-law liability to a news portal operator will affect freedom of expression on the Internet.”
The MTE ruling diverged from a previous ruling in a very similar case, Delfi v. Estonia. There, the ECtHR’s Grand Chamber found that an Estonian ruling, which effectively required a news site to monitor user comments for hate speech, did not violate Article 10. The key distinction from Delfi, the MTE court said, was that the user comments at issue in MTE were not as bad – they were not hate speech or direct threats. (P. 91) Accordingly, they were not dangerous enough to justify the risks that a monitoring requirement would pose for free expression.
A more detailed discussion of the MTE and Delfi cases can be found in a series of CIS blog posts here.