Collateral website blocking unlawful: European Court of Human Rights orders Russia to pay €12,000 in damages

June 23, 2020, Strasbourg — The European Court of Human Rights has today issued a decision in the Vladimir Kharitonov v. Russia case, unanimously ruling that collateral blocking of an entire website is an extreme and disproportionate measure that violates freedom of expression and the right to an effective remedy (Article 10 and Article 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights). The court ordered the Russian government to pay €12,000 to the plaintiff.

“Website blocking has become a go-to measure for authorities to censor content and silence critical voices online,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech-Legal Counsel at Access Now. “This decision states that not only does the action of indiscriminate website blocking violate the European Human Rights Convention, but also that domestic laws used to justify such blockings without providing the necessary safeguards are incompatible with the rule of law.” 

In the case, Vladimir Vladimirovich Kharitonov sued the Russian government for blocking his website, Electronic Publishing News, in December 2012. The action was enabled by the Russian authority Roskomnadzor in charge of supervising media and telecommunications. The intended recipient of the blocking order was in fact a different website — an online collection of cannabis‑themed stories known as The Rastaman Tales  — but because the two websites shared the same IP address, Kharitonov’s website became a victim to collateral website blocking. Kharitonov’s attempts to challenge the blocking were futile, with Russian courts siding with Roskomnadzor.

“The internet is a vital tool in exercising the right to freedom of expression. The Court reaffirmed that blocking websites without appropriate safeguards results in arbitrary and excessive effects and it is a form of human rights abuse,” said Fanny Hidvegi, Europe Policy Manager at Access Now

Access Now submitted an amicus brief in 2017, arguing that website blocking is a serious interference with the core right to freedom of expression, which should comply with the necessity and proportionality principles. We also argued that affected individuals must be notified and granted adequate remedies to challenge blocking measures. The court took note of the amicus in issuing the decision.

Today’s Kharitonov decision was issued along with three other European Court of Human Rights decisions of unlawful website blocking in Russia: OOO Flavus and Others v. Russia, a case in which Access Now was also an amici, Engels v. Russia, and Bulgakov v. Russia