Online “debates”: The case of Delfi vs. Estonia
A very interesting open letter hit the cybersphere on January 13th, addressed to the President of the European Court of Human Rights at the Council of Europe, Dean Spielmann. Here is the opening paragraph in its entirety:
“We, the undersigned 69 media organisations, internet companies, human rights groups and academic institutions write to support the referral request that we understand has been submitted in the case of Delfi v. Estonia (Application No. 64569/09). Signatories to this letter include some of the largest global news organisations and internet companies including Google, Forbes, News Corp, Thomson Reuters, the New York Times, Bloomberg News, Guardian News and Media, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and Conde Nast; prominent European media companies and associations including the European Newspaper Publishers’ Association, Sanoma Media Netherlands B.V. and the European Publishers Council; national media outlets and journalists associations from across the continent; and advocacy groups including Index on Censorship, Greenpeace, the Center for Democracy and Technology and ARTICLE 19.”
The lengthy letter addresses the fundamental issue of freedom of expression as pertains to the internet. More specifically, the issue of whether there is democratic openness in the Delfi vs. Estonia case that was dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights in October. Again, a full paragraph quote from the open letter, so as to avert any misunderstandings and misinterpretations, as is often the case when it comes to contentious issues such as internet commentary:
“We understand that the applicant in the above-referenced case has requested that the chamber judgment of 10 October 2013 be referred to the Grand Chamber of the Court for reconsideration. We are writing to endorse Delfi’s request for a referral due to our shared concern that the chamber judgment, if it stands, would have serious adverse repercussions for freedom of expression and democratic openness in the digital era. In terms of Article 43 (2) of the Convention, we believe that liability for user-generated content on the Internet constitutes both a serious question affecting the interpretation or application of Article 10 of the Convention in the online environment and a serious issue of general importance.”
Those familiar with the Delfi internet portal are aware that there are no Queensbury rules when it comes to commenting on material posted on that site. Vulgarity abounds, aggressive in-yo-face speak is often the norm rather than the exception, and many online “debates” sink to not only ad hominem arguments but attacks that have little or anything to do with the original article that attracted attention. In the case that the open letter is addressing, Delfi pulled a posting after a prominent individual applied pressure to the portal because of negative and anonymous comments addressing that person’s character.
That phenomenon is, alas, known abroad as well. Take the Estonian-Canadian community. For years, hiding behind the craven and pusillanimous cloak of anonymity, commentators have attacked authors appearing under their own names at, first the eesti.ca website, when most of what was published in Eesti Elu for free perusal was besmirched, and then since the emergence of Estonian World Review, with an international readership from over 100 countries, showing their cowardly colours at the EWR site (the proprietor of the eesti.ca web portal). The year-old Eesti Elu (www.eestielu.ca) site seems to attract little commentary, and we can only wonder why. Safe is better? Editorial policy different? And by the way, who is the editor of that site?
Although any decision made by the European Court of Human Rights at the Council of Europe will obviously not affect the so-called debates at EWR, the open letter does allow one to focus on the issue of freedom of expression. Is it truly that, as Delfi argues, anonymous commentary should be allowed? It is in Delfi’s interest (and that of the advertisers that the portal attracts) to have these so-called debates, so as to increase readership, and hopefully revenues. EWR, without advertising, is far too often the site of anonymous “flaming”, some postings have been truly embarrassing from an Estonian-Canadian point of view, and forcing the editors on occasion to delete particularly virulent and offensive comments.
What those anonymous commentators fail to understand is that by their vitriol they damage the efforts of the expatriate Estonian community to present a healthy and cohesive front to the rest of the world. One example: the personal attacks in the so-called Ehatare issue. Often these attacks are appended to articles that have nothing to do with the seniors residence. The other obvious example is seen in the humorless critics not understanding the wit, satire and irony of Kargu Karla in his “vested” (or feuilletons). Jonathan Swift, perhaps the greatest satirist ever, resorted to the device with hopes that his readership would see through its application and apply his musings to societal faults as a whole. Quite a few Eesti Elu and EWR readers seem to be unaware of that literary convention, and by resorting to anonymous sniping demonstrate their infantile and insecure positions within the community. (If they can be even considered to be a part of the Estonian-Canadian polity, but that is grist for another mill).
I encourage readers of this opinion piece to familiarize themselves with the open letter, distributed by www.indexoncensorship.org before knee-jerking with response. At issue is, as the letter states, “the liability of an online news portal for third-party defamatory comments posted by readers on the portal’s website, below a news item.” The signatories of the letter find it “deeply problematic” that the October decision was made, arguing that websites and portals such as Delfi and EWR would have to revert to censorship and satisfying vested interests ( as was done with the case that led to the Delfi vs. Estonia case).
Freedom of expression should certainly not apply to anonymous commentary. For obvious reasons. However, as this case shows, there are heated opinions on both sides of the argument. Censorship, as practiced to great effect in totalitarian regimes, is not the answer, nor should it be. Hoping that anonymous misanthropes mature is also much too great of a wish. Yet this case mirrors what is wrong in our social media and internet dominated world. No one takes responsibility for their actions, and the springboard of commenting only leads to ugliness and venom. That is where many Estonians have sunk to, at home and abroad.
I await the resolution of this case with great interest. Estonia has garnered world wide recognition for being a leader in the cyberworld. Alas, Estonians are also leaders in being offensive and cowardly in internet commentary. It is too much to expect a quantum shift in the approach of commentators, but one never knows. Let us express the desire that the European Court comes to its senses, as well as hoping that the verbal diarrhea and vulgarity, venom-spouting cowards will smarten up some day.
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