Internet content ruling sparks free-speech concern

Analysis

Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that content providers are liable for unmoderated, third-party comments posted on the Internet, prompting the court’s head to warn in a parallel opinion that it could limit free speech.

In a ruling dated May 27, justices said Internet content providers that don’t moderate third-party comments are just as liable for the comments as websites that moderate them. The majority decision said this was necessary to protect personal rights guaranteed in the constitution. The ruling can “easily result in decisions that disproportionately limit freedom of speech,” Constitutional Court President Péter Paczolay, who voted with the majority, wrote in a parallel legal opinion he wrote to show an alternative take on the case.

The court ruling failed to distinguish between freedom of the press and the more general freedom of expression, and judges should have striven to ensure a “constitutional balance” between personal rights and freedom of expression, Paczolay wrote in part.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASz) responded by stating in part that the decision will have “a disproportionately large deterring effect on online public debates that are still lively today.” Further, “the ruling could substantially change how the Internet is used” due to the fact that “unconditional responsibility makes it extremely risky for content providers to allow commenting for their users. [...] If they choose not to take unconditional responsibility for something they cannot control, the possibility to comment could be terminated altogether. If they do so, they will eliminate not only the harmful comments but also the opportunity for valuable debate.”

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