Worrying setback in European Court Delfi decision for online free expression and innovation

Strasbourg – Access denounces the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights against the news website Delfi.ee. The ruling creates a worrying precedent that could force websites to censor content. It also creates a perverse incentive for websites to discourage online anonymity and freedom of expression.

“Despite warnings from groups defending vulnerable internet users, as well as from large media companies, the Court has dramatically shifted the internet away from the free expression and privacy protections that created the internet as we know it,” said Peter Micek, Senior Policy Counsel at Access.

Delfi.ee is a popular Estonian news website that allowed anonymous comments. In 2006, users’ anonymous comments on an article about icy roads and transportation ferries led to the site being sued for defaming a ferry company’s owner. During the ensuing trial, the news site refused to divulge information pertaining to the commenters’ identities. Estonian courts allowed the alleged victim of defamation to sue Delfi as the publisher of the comments, and the decision was affirmed by the lower chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.

Human rights groups, as well as some of the world’s largest media companies, have closely followed the case and opposed any departure from the European Union’s E-Commerce Directive, which guarantees liability protection for intermediaries that implement notice-and-takedown mechanisms on third-party comments. Access intervened last year in the case before the European Court in favor of Delfi.ee.

“This ruling is a serious blow to users’ rights online,” Micek continued. “Dissenting voices will have fewer outlets in which to seek and impart opinions anonymously. Instead, users at risk will be dragged down by a precedent that will keep them from accessing the open ocean of ideas and information.”

Other courts, including the Estonian Supreme Court and the Lower Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, had already issued disappointing rulings in the case — despite Estonia adopting the E-Commerce Directive into national law. The Grand Chamber of the European Court typically stands by the rulings of the Lower Chamber, so the Grand Chamber’s intervention highlighted the importance intermediary liability and its effects on fundamental rights.

“Today’s decision by the Court, which imposes liability on websites for user-generated comments, will result in real challenges to freedom of expression and  anonymity online,” said Raegan MacDonald, European Policy Manager. “The precedence set by the Court today risks chilling free speech online, in Europe and beyond.”


Media Contacts
Peter Micek
Senior Policy Counsel, Access
+1-888-414-0100 x709

Raegan MacDonald
European Policy Manager, Access
+32 2 274 25 74
[email protected]