Defamation in the digital age

Last October, the grand chamber of the Court ruled in the joined cases of eDate and Martinez (C-509/09 and C-161/10) on the interpretation of Article 5(3) of the Brussels I Regulation (Regulation 44/2001/EC) in cases of alleged infringement of personality rights by means of content placed on an internet website. Article 5(3) grants jurisdiction to the court of the place where the harmful event occurred or may occur.

In earlier case law, Fiona Shevill, the Court had held that in case of defamation by means of a newspaper article distributed in several Member States, Article 5(3) must be interpreted as giving the victim a choice between fora. Firstly, the victim may bring the action before the courts of the Member State of the place where the publisher of the defamatory publication is established, which have jurisdiction to award damages for all of the harm caused by the defamation. Secondly and alternatively, the victim may bring the action before the courts of each Member State in which the publication was distributed and where the victim claims to have suffered injury to his reputation, and which have jurisdiction to rule solely in respect of the harm caused in the State of the court seised (paragraph 33 of Shevill). Could these criteria be applied in cases where the defamatory content was published on the internet?

The Court ruled in the affirmative but called attention to the fact that online content is to be distinguished from the regional distribution of media such as printed matter. Therefore, the Court amended the criteria of Shevill and held:

48     The connecting criteria referred to in paragraph 42 of the present judgment must therefore be adapted in such a way that a person who has suffered an infringement of a personality right by means of the internet may bring an action in one forum in respect of all of the damage caused, depending on the place in which the damage caused in the European Union by that infringement occurred. Given that the impact which material placed online is liable to have on an individual’s personality rights might best be assessed by the court of the place where the alleged victim has his centre of interests, the attribution of jurisdiction to that court corresponds to the objective of the sound administration of justice, referred to in paragraph 40 above.

49     The place where a person has the centre of his interests corresponds in general to his habitual residence. However, a person may also have the centre of his interests in a Member State in which he does not habitually reside, in so far as other factors, such as the pursuit of a professional activity, may establish the existence of a particularly close link with that State.

Switching from jurisdiction to applicable law for a moment: the Committee on Legal Affairs of the European Parliament has submitted a new draft report, which takes into account the eDate decision, with recommendations to the Commission about including a choice of law rule for privacy and personality rights in the (Rome II) Regulation on the law applicable to non-contractual obligations (Regulation 864/2007/EC).

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