Prague, 9 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Imagine for a minute that your neighbor logs on to the Internet and posts an insulting e-mail about you on an open-access discussion forum known as a "chat room."
Or maybe a dissatisfied customer decides to air his complaints about your company's products in another chat room. Maybe not everything the customer says is true. Could you then sue the Internet provider that runs the discussion forum for libel?
"It's the same as if we discussed something over the phone right now and afterwards the phone company would be held liable for what we discussed. It's nonsense. It makes no sense."
That was the question raised by a suit filed against the Megasoft Internet provider at Moscow's Federal District Court of Arbitration.
Megasoft runs a chat room for Russian metal traders. In 2002, a visitor to the chat room posted an unflattering message about a particular company, Troika-Steel.
The managers at Troika-Steel got offended, saying their business reputation had been harmed, and sued Megasoft for allowing the message to be posted on its forum.
Troika-Steel lost its first suit, but the company appealed. This time Megasoft was the losing party. The Internet provider appealed that judgment to the appellate court of the Moscow Federal District Court of Arbitration. And last week, the court upheld the verdict -- finding Megasoft liable for damages to Troika-Steel.
The ruling sent shivers through Russia's Internet community. Megasoft said that if taken as a legal precedent, the judgment could force all Internet providers in Russia to act as censors of their sites or face costly lawsuits or shutdowns.
For many, chat rooms and discussion forums have come to symbolize all that is best about the Internet. They are a chance to exchange information on practically any topic with any user around the world. They allow users to express an opinion, to create online "communities" bound by a common interest -- without the interference of international borders, government censors, or other restrictions.
Will last week's ruling end all this for Russians?
Boris Timoshenko, of the Glasnost Defense Fund in Moscow, monitors free-speech issues in Russia. He says the court ruling is illogical.
"It's the same as if we discussed something over the phone right now and afterwards the phone company would be held liable for what we discussed. It's nonsense. It makes no sense," Timoshenko said.
Timoshenko notes that the case is likely to be appealed further and he says the contradictory rulings issued by different courts mean a definitive legal precedent has so far not been set.
"There is some cause for optimism, because this case has come before the courts several times and different courts have handed down different rulings -- sometimes in favor of the plaintiff and sometimes in favor of the defendant. So it appears there is no clear guideline on how the courts should rule in such cases. In addition, this case can be appealed further," Timoshenko said.
Vitalii Chelishev is deputy editor in chief of the Moscow-based print magazine "Zhurnalist." He is also webmaster of the publication's online version, which includes a chat room. He also believes the court ruling makes little sense and he warns of the consequences if it is not overturned.
"I believe this [ruling] will be overturned,” he says. “It must be overturned because otherwise, every site which runs an Internet forum, including our own site at 'Zhurnalist' magazine -- which we opened for the sole purpose of having an arena for free discussion -- all of these sites, including ours, will go under if this ruling sticks as a precedent. [We are talking about] tens, hundreds, thousands of sites that have forums for intellectual discussion and where all types of opinions are put forth."
The decentralized nature of the Internet makes it hard to police or control. Requiring providers to screen all material that is posted in chat rooms would slow the pace of exchanges to a crawl, defeating the purpose of such forums.
If more pressure were applied, Russian Internet providers could decide to move "offshore" -- setting up mirror sites using the Internet domains of other countries, without ever leaving Russia.
As it is, any Internet user in Russia can access sites in other countries by simply typing in the correct URL address. The government would have to set up special filters to block citizens' access to foreign sites.
Few people in Russia today believe things will go that far. But Timoshenko at the Glasnost Defense Fund is concerned that in the current uncertain legal climate, the Court of Arbitration's ruling could be used as a tool for intimidation. As he tells RFE/RL, those fears are not unfounded.
"I have [already] received such information from Irkutsk. There, a journalist who has had difficult relations with the local authorities and who runs an Internet site, a forum -- where he posts various material -- has been receiving e-mails saying the authorities now have all the ammunition they need to 'get' him," Timoshenko said.
Chelyshev hopes Russia's Internet providers, along with Internet journalists and their print media counterparts, will now band together to protect freedom of speech -- drafting their own guidelines, if necessary, to ward off government or court regulation.