Thu, Apr. 20, 2006

Massively Chilled Speech

CK - Washington.   In a critical April 19, 2006 analysis, Vertretbar Weblawg predicts the regional splintering of approaches to the issue of civil liability of Internet communication forum providers for comments by visitors. The author examines the decision known as Mario D. v. Heise by the Hamburg district court of December 2, 2005 in the matter of 324 O 721/05 on the liability of Heise, one of the most important German sources of news.

The Hamburg court is known for an aggressive interpretation of its jurisdictional reach and a frequently misunderstood ruling on liability for links. To its credit, the court preserved Google's limitation of liability for Adsense wordings in the matter 312 O 324/04 on September 9, 2004 when examining the issue of contributory liability.

Vertretbar argues, inter alia, that the liability of the forum provider imposed by the Hamburg court is limited to forums with editorial content. Further, other courts are likely to confirm the existing bar to liability for providers, leaving parties aggrieved over user comments with recourse to the party causing the harm, as the law is written. Visitors adding harmful content to user forums would be responsible, and forum providers would remain insulated from liability until they receive knowledge of infractions caused by users. Law-Blog concurs and believes the Hamburg court uses a Catch 22 rationale to arrive at its results.

The recently published Hamburg ruling has caused fear among German providers of forums and blogs. They read the decision to require a pre-screening of user comments and entries for illegal or harmful content. Since the owner of such a service is hardly in a position to determine what is defamatory or true and whether a statement may be anti-competitive, the effect of the decision is to broadly freeze internet speech. The court considers a forum like Heise's a danger that imposes a heightened duty of care:
Ein allgemeiner Grundsatz, dass derjenige, der eine besonders gefährliche Einrichtung unterhält, wegen deren Gefährlichkeit von eventuellen Haftungsrisiken freigehalten werden müsste, existiert nicht; die Tendenz geht im Gegenteil vielmehr dahin, dass derjenige, der eine Einrichtung unterhält, von der wegen ihrer schweren Beherrschbarkeit besondere Gefahren ausgehen, einer verschärften Haftung unterworfen wird (s. z.B. für den Bereich des Schadensersatzrechts die Fälle der Gefährdungshaftung wie §7 StVG, §833 Satz 1 BGB, §84 Arzneimittelgesetz).
In addition to so comparing an Internet forum to the dangers of vehicular traffic and pharmaceuticals, the court examines the option of such a dangerous forum to scan what it calls the gigantic number of expressions:
Eine Einschränkung der Verantwortlichkeit der Antragsgegnerin für Inhalte, die über das von ihr eingerichtete und unterhaltene Internetforum verbreitet werden, ergibt sich auch nicht daraus, dass es der Antragsgegnerin aufgrund der - zu ihren Gunsten unterstellten - Vielzahl der Einträge in die von ihr unterhaltenen Foren unmöglich wäre, alle Einträge vor einer Freischaltung - wie dies vor pressemäßiger Verbreitung von Äußerungen grundsätzlich erforderlich ist (s. etwa BGH, Urt. V. 18. 12. 1962, NJW 1963, S. 484 f., 485) - durch einen im Sinne von §531 BGB verantwortlichen Mitarbeiter prüfen zu lassen.
In other words, even if a forum were to hire a pre-screener who might not be able pre-screen every single entry from users, liability cannot be limited. If the decision were to hold up on appeal, the Hamburg court would hold a dangerous mix of extraterritorial jurisdiction and substantive expansion of Internet liability for speech.

The Hamburg bar to free speech in Germany would be on a massive scale not seen since the founding of the federal republic and the fall of the Wall. More than likely, decisions from Hamburg would violate the ordre public in many countries in cases where the recognition and enforcement of a Hamburg judgment were to be sought, thus rendering such judgments internationally ineffective.


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