Should Websites Be Held Responsible For Visitors’ Comments?

There was a time not too long ago when the Internet acted as a bastion of freedom. While it has maintained this status, governments are making inroads to controlling what is done on the Web in the form of legislation that some perceive as threats to the freedom of expression and press that have dominated the landscape for such a long time. It appears that there are a great amount of people on the Internet who feel as if there must be retribution for comments that offend them. The best thing that they can do in this type of situation is to ask the owner kindly to take down the comment, a request that the owner doesn’t need to comply with. A landmark European court decision could change all of that.

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An Estonian news website posted an article in October 2014 about a company’s decision to change ferry routes. The story attracted comments that insulted the company, and as a response the news publisher, Delfi, was sued. Delfi made an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights which found that the restrictions on freedom of expression that the publisher faces are completely legitimate. We’ve all heard of outlandish court decisions, but this verdict was delivered by a principal European court, setting a precedent for future litigation and possible legislation.

This has essentially made websites in Europe responsible for the comments that appear on them, should these comments ever offend anyone. Critics are calling this an affront to free speech. The result of this landmark verdict will make it difficult for websites to accept dialogue that could provoke the ire of certain interest groups or companies.

Support for the verdict comes from people on social media sites such as some communities on Tumblr. Those who advocate for these restrictions say that it may help alleviate some of the harm that comes from speech that is deemed racist, incorrect, or otherwise insulting to any particular demographic.

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Rather than view this as an issue concerning the freedom of expression, I am inclined to believe that this is an issue of personal responsibility. Each person should be responsible for what they say on the Internet. By making websites responsible for comments we are eliminating the burden of personal responsibility from commenters and pointing the finger at an entity that, for all we know, doesn’t share the opinion of the persons who have made the comments.

As far as websites are concerned, their responsibility as it stood before the verdict was to ensure that its readers were catered to, and any material published by them was not violating any laws. The precedent established by the verdict now makes websites responsible for what anyone says, and may encourage sites – especially news publishers – to close their comments entirely in order to reduce their administrative workloads. This could also mean that the future status quo could revolve around the restriction on what particular groups of people may say.

What do you think? Tell us in a comment while you still can!

17 comments

  1. Sites are publishers. Publishing on a web site differs only in technology and the medium in use from publishing on paper. The technology used to publish, and the medium on which you publish, should not affect a publisher’s legal responsibilities.

    The issue with online commenting is that few publishers are willing to devote the resources needed to edit those comments. A newspaper publisher, for example,. would not publish a clearly libelous letter to the editor and, later, attempt to defend against a legal challenge by arguing that the newspaper bore no responsibility for the content of the letter. (The paper, very likely, would try to argue the letter was not libelous.)

    Do things change if that same newspaper published the content of that letter as a comment on its web site? Would that, alone, affect the newspaper’s liability?

    The answer is no. Why would it?

    If web sites do not want to edit and moderate comments, then they should not enable comments.

    Comment threads on web sites are not public spaces. They are publishing tools running on private web sites that allow public access for their own reasons, typically to increase revenue.

    Freedom of expression must be balanced against our right to be protected from libel and slander, which we are not free to express without risk of legal consequences.

    • Very well presented argument. However, I think that there are already provisions against libel and slander in several countries’ legal systems. Should those be insufficient, it is perhaps prudent to revise them rather than establish sweeping legal precedents that make it difficult to define what is and what is not right to say in the comments section of a website. I wholeheartedly agree that libel and slander should not be taken lightly. It just means, though, that we should take measures to enforce laws already in place.

    • The issue is not preventing libelous and/or slanderous statements online. As Miguel says, most, if not all , countries already have anti-slander and anti-libel laws on the books and those laws clearly define what slander and libel are.

      The Delfi case is about “offensive” speech. “Offensive speech” in vast majority of cases is neither slanderous not libelous. “Offensive speech” is a nebulous concept defined by the recipient. No matter what you say, there will be somebody who finds it “offensive”. If you have an opinion there will be someone who not only finds your opinion “offensive” but also your temerity to have an opinion. If “offensive speech” is banned, then everyone will have to march to the tune of the same drummer. Every dictatorship tries to impose its party line. It never works.

      You want to say something negative about a politician? You can’t because that is insulting and offensive to him/her. You want to vote them out of office for doing a lousy job, you can’t because voting against him can be considered insulting and offensive. You just don’t recognize how great a guy he is.

      The problem is that we have become hyper-sensitized. We find offense around every corner and behind every door. If we can’t find offense, we invent reasons to be offended. In the US, hotel chains are billing quests who are not satisfied with their service and post negative reviews on the hotel site, one nights stay. (They do not reward those that post positive reviews) Next time you want to stay at a 4 or 5 star hotel, beware, the rating may be totally artificial.

      • The problem is that there are communities on the internet who hunt for things to be offended about. It’s a concept called manufactured outrage. Oftentimes, the ones who are offended aren’t even whom the insult is addressed to. Rather than be outraged, the ones addressed in the insult probably say a few things against it and move on. The ones manufacturing the outrage will keep the train rolling until a petition is made to ban that sort of speech.

        • “The problem is that there are communities on the internet who hunt for things to be offended about.”
          Which is precisely my point when I say that we invent reasons to be offended or insulted.

          What I find interesting is that when you ask people, they want the government out of their lives. And yet, more and more, the run crying to the nanny-state, looking for the government to protect them from perceived insults and negative comments.

  2. The Delfi case is the first step on a slippery slope or the camel’s nose under the tent flap. It sets a precedent which will be expanded upon in the future to ban any “disapproved of” form of expression.

  3. up to the site to moderate and it’s up to the person commenting to have at least some manners about them.

  4. First a question: Why didn’t the offended company go after the person who made the comment?

    Second question: If radio stations are required to censor for offense words, why wouldn’t we expect a web site that allows comments to censor for offensive commentary?

    Third question: Would a disclaimer have worked? Something like: “The comments posted by our users do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Delfi.”

    • Speaking from the perspective of one who has managed radio stations in the past, and websites in the present, I would say that the answer to your second question starts with the observation that the two media are not the same, and so ought not be regulated as if they were.

      Radio stations use the “public airwaves” in a bargain made with the government. Broadcasters get radio spectrum in exchange for agreeing to terms and conditions that include adherence to standards of decency. The arrangement is a very clear quid pro quo. Websites do not depend on public subsidy in the way radio stations must, and do not agree as part of any bargain to adhere to any such standards. Courts imposing such standards without providing any valuable asset in return are in effect levying a tax. It is a clear case of a quo with no quid.

      We, as a civil society, may well decide that offensive comments on a website really are materially harmful to some citizens, just as we once thought that indecent speech on the air somehow hurts citizens. As far as I know, neither has been shown to be true. But, until governments are ready to give website operators something of great value in exchange for not offending their audiences, as they do give broadcasters, regulating comments amounts to a taking.

  5. Speech is nothing of value if unpopular comments cannot be made without censorship, whether that censorship is State or private in nature. If one desires 1933-ish German state, then freedom, liberty, speech and the Internet will be highly regulated, perhaps those dreamers’ situs should be current mainland China.

    Freedom lovers believe it is better to have inflammatory and hate speech out in the open where moderation by community with cooler heads can blunt the the fiery edge of the message. Only fools and Democrats would prefer speech, like “niggardly” and such, be hidden to facilitate the perpetuation of hate and the misdeeds of miscreants. Or, as an excuse to raise taxes–the pro(re)gressive solution to all societal ills. Fools one and all.

    Let the bad mouths say their piece and see what response it brings–the fools in the audience will act accordingly. The integencia will bring logic and statis to the row. Emotions should have subsided before a permanent response is fashioned. Time has a quelling effect on the stupidity of slanderous remarks. ©2015

  6. This is really about lawyers and getting hefty fees. If I say something on twiter, facebook, … I am no worth going after for damages. But they are. The EU complains that their companies face unfair competition from US companies. Stupid rulings like this and laws like the ‘Rigt to Be Forgotten’ are why.

  7. I say first and foremost – piss on the whiny little bastards who get ‘offended’ at anything and everything! Those kinds of fart-knockers need to be bitch-slapped to hell and back.

    Second, a site shouldn’t have to worry about what someone posts because that *IS* censorship and again is for the lame, whiny bastards who want to enforce *THEIR* way od thought and feelings because they believe someone elses are wrong!

    Third, Europe doesn’t have our Constitution nor our Bill of Rights. This ‘problem’ needs to be handled by *their* way of doing things, just so long as they don’t try to force the rest of the planet to follow suit if it does happen to go against the freedoms we have here in the USA.

    • Hey, thank the Lord someone from the good ol’ USA has joined the party. Up to this point I had been wondering how this thread could possibly maintain it’s sensible and intellectual course. Then here comes stereotypical JB. The tone and intellect has changed for the worse and the thread will now probably continue downhill into ‘rants’ and subsequent oblivion. I’m off to find another sensible thread elsewhere. Bye y’all.

  8. How is anyone supposed to know what a random someone may be offended by?? It becomes the “Who’s on first” of “I’m offended”.
    I’m offended…
    Well, I’m offended because he’s offended…
    Huh, I’m offended that you’re offended. How do you like them apples???
    Wait, I knew someone once, that lived next door to an old lady, that had a distant relative that she thought died from an apple allergy. I’m offended you’re even talking about apples!
    No one has the right to not be offended. Sorry, welcome to grown-up land. Once you are offended you do have the responsibility to conduct yourself as an adult.

  9. a bit of logic.
    people of a country elect a government. Internet operates across boundaries. now government “representing” A wants this piece of law passed ignoring whether those people of country B like it or not. but, can anyone sue a government of another country? who or what can possibly prevent any country from doing something affecting them?
    no simple answer whether the countries are on friendly terms or just the opposite.

    • To clarify, I believe that it will only affect sites hosted in the country or region.

      • Since those sites will have to filter (censor) what is posted on them, and the posts can come from anywhere in the world, the Delfi ruling ultimately affects the entire Internet world.

Comments are closed.

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