Website blocking and freedom of expression

The European Court of Human Rights with decision of June 23th 2020 indicated as unlawful some measures of the Russian telecoms regulator Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) which blocked many websites, as they were found to be in violation of art. 10 (Freedom of expression) and art. 13 (Right to an effective remedy) of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The case began after four appeals presented by the websites’ owners before the Court of Human Rights, in accordance with art. 34 of the Convention, against Russia.

The applicants, between 2013 and 2015, appealed to the Court of Strasburg complaining about a violation of art. 10 (freedom of expression), and, by itself or in conjunction with, art. 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the Convention. In particular, they argued that the blocking measure was illegal and disproportionate and the Russian courts also did not take into consideration merit of the complaints.

The ECHR stated unanimously the violation of art. 10 in relation to all four cases. On this regard, the Court affirmed that the interferences put in place by the Authority could have been licit, if provided for by a law with a clear and predictable matter and with limits on the discretion allowed by the Authority and a law that provided forms of protection from illicit interferences, which is the conditions required by the same article.

The Judges with decision of June 23th also highlighted  the importance of Internet as a medium for freedom of expression and information, and for this reason, a website blocking measures could result only as measure to tamper the rights of the appellants to communicate information and with the right of the users to receive it.

The blocks carried out by the Authority were also found by the Court to be entirely disproportionate.

In particular, the cases examined had as object different types of blocking measures: the “collateral” block, where the IP address shared with a different website was blocked, including the destination IP; and “excessive” block in which the entire website was blocked because of a single page or file, and lastly, the “wholesale” block, that is three online media websites were blocked for the coverage of certain news.

The blocking measures against the applicants’ websites did not have any justifications and did not pursue any legitimate goal.

In regards to the violation of art. 13, taken in conjunction with art. 10, the ECHR found that the domestic courts, in the proceedings brought by the applicants, did not examine the merit of these questionable complaints of violation of rights. Therefore, the Court declared that the violation of art. 13 of the Convention is also admissible.

For these reasons inferred in the decision, following the request of a just satisfaction pursuant to art. 41 of the Convention, the European Court of Human Rights therefore held that Russia is to pay the amount of 10.000 Euros to each applicant for non-pecuniary damage, besides the costs and expenses incurred by the applicants