Website Owners – Saying “We don’t moderate so don’t moan at us” – may no longer be enough”

A recent European ruling in Estonia may cause website owners to sleep slightly less easy at night as the European Court of Human Rights has issued a ruling that indicates website owners may need to actively review and moderate their websites in order

The case centered around comments made by users on a Estonian news network article. It is a general practice adopted by many website owners and publishers to post articles and invite user comments on said articles: this is an easy way to drive traffic to the site and invite user interaction. Website owners generally avoid being liable for any of these comments that may be defamatory a) because they are purely user generated without any editorial input from the website owner/publisher and b) prompt removal from the website, following any complaints that may be made, often provides the website with a defence to any libel proceedings. So, prior to this recent decision, websites were pretty stress free when it came to complaints about user generated comments on their site and any threats of libel proceedings.

The Estonian case concerned a ferry company who had changed its routes and damaged local infrastructure as part of the change. The story was posted on a mainstream Estonian news network and attracted offensive and defamatory comments from online users. The ferry company complained directly to the website and did not make use of the website flagging system. The news network accepted the comments were defamatory (A BIG MISTAKE!) but 6 weeks had passed before the comments were actually removed, hence the libel proceedings bought by the ferry company.  After the Court found that the website owner was responsible for the website comments on the article, the website owner could not then seek to bring defenses against the libel proceedings as they had already admitted they were defamatory, a critical error.

Generally website owners never make any admission of liability or comment on the veracity or lawful basis of comments even after removing them, as this gives the website a further fall back point should a claimant seek to issue libel proceedings against them.

The news website in this case did not have such a fall back plan. 

The judgment in this case, contained a paragraph that will keep website owners on edge, as the Court appears to have placed a positive obligation on websites to monitor carefully controversial stories which could invite comments which may be unlawful on a “higher than average basis”, which in layman’s terms means that any high profile story will need to be closely policed and monitored in case defamatory comments are made by the websites users. A website can only ensure it steers clear of libel proceedings by keeping their eyes sharp on such comments and removing them expeditiously, potentially even before receiving a complaint from an effected party.

This judgment may well see the extinction of the previous standard response from website owners of “we cannot be held liable because we don’t moderate”. This response generally prevented them being named as the subject of libel proceedings.  But now, the tide is turning and so website owners should be very, very wary of user comments.

John Spyrou

Business Services News


Read Next

Testimonials


What people say

"We shall, no doubt, be engaging you again soon"

"The matter was concluded very successfully and I’d like to thank John and Wilson again for their helpful and highly professional work earlier this year."

Alex Bailey, Trichromic LLP'

"Great Source of Support"

"You have essentially achieved what we had set out to do. Thank you for all of your assistance in this matter. Throughout this ordeal, you have been a great source of support."

Mary Anne Poutanen, Canada

"I could not have chosen a better firm to represent me."

"You provided the key essentials (and more) for client satisfaction. I am extremely pleased with the services provided by your company and the legal team provided for me. To also turnaround my situation making it a positive outcome, I could not have chosen a better firm to represent me."

Marvyn Smith, London

"I would recomend this service to anyone who has a legal matter"

"I'm so glad I had this advice before my CMD. I was very much prepared and think my company (whom I'm taking to a tribunal) were shocked at my knowledge. I would recommend this service to anyone who has a legal matter."

Jacqueline Stevenson, Bristol

"Can’t wait for another session!"

"John Spyrou kindly offered to provide our publishing firm with an update on libel and defamation law. Those who attended - a mix of veteran editors and those new to the world of journalism - all said how practical and useful they found the training – and now can’t wait for another session!"

Paul Snell, Redactive Media Group

"Highly recommended"

"Alana & Pinder Reaux’s level of service has been exceptionally high. Always keen to help out with the work in an efficient manner. Highly recommended."

Trading Point of Financial Instruments UK Ltd

"Fast and Reliable"

"Fast and reliable notary service for notarisation/legalisation of College reports for foreign office and embassies."

Student Services Department, CATS College London

"One step ahead of the opposition"

"'John Spyrou has the ability to pre-empty arguments and see issues before they arise, thereby allowing him to be one step ahead of the opposition’"

Christopher Bovey, Angelbird Technologies GmbH