The European Court of Human Rights rules that refusal to impose civil liability on forum host for offensive comments does not violate the right to respect for private life

19 Mar 2019

Mona Hoiness sued an internet company for defamation in Oslo, alleging that her honour was infringed because of sexual harassment in three comments made anonymously by internet users. She lost her case against the online intermediary in all national jurisdictions and filed the case in the European Court of Human Rights. She alleged, this time, that the Norwegian State, and its national courts, by exempting the online intermediary of civil liability, did not protect her reputation which is encompassed by the right to respect for private life (article 8, European Convention on Human Rights). The European Court ruled that the national courts have struck a fair balance between Hoiness’ right to respect for her private life under Article 8 ECtHR and forum host’s right to freedom of expression also guaranteed by the Convention. In this case, exempting the intermediary from liability of third-party comments ensures the right of freedom of expression. ​​

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Intermediaries play a vital role in ensuring Internet functionality. In several Internet governance areas, such as copyright infringement and spam, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are considered key online intermediaries. In other areas, such as defamation and the so-called right to be forgotten, the responsibility extends to hosts of online content and search engines.

Several international instruments guarantee the right to freedom of expression. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that this right includes the freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. The Internet, with the opportunity it offers people to express themselves, is seen as an enabler of the exercise of this particular human right. Although these freedoms are guaranteed in global instruments and in national constitutions, in some countries freedom of expression is often curtailed through online censorship or filtering mechanisms, imposed by states, often for political reasons.

 

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