A request to block disinformation websites was not illegal, the court rules

A court has rejected an administrative lawsuit faced by the Ministry of Defense following a crackdown on disinformation websites last year. The non-profit organization Institute H21 and Open Society announced the ruling on Monday, which said the state’s action was illegal and filed the lawsuit.

The Prague City Court, however, concluded that the action challenged in the lawsuit could not constitute “unlawful interference” within the meaning of the law. The decision is final, but the plaintiffs intend to lodge a cassation appeal.

On February 25, 2022, the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the government called for measures to prevent the dissemination of false and misleading information in cyberspace regarding Russian aggression.

On the same day, the National Cyber Operations Centre of the Military Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence sent a letter to the CZ.NIC association is requesting that access to disinformation sites be prevented and enclosing a list of specific sites. CZ.NIC then temporarily blocked the website Aeronet.cz, Protiproud.cz, Ceskobezcenzury.cz, Voxpopuliblog.cz, Prvnizpravy.cz, Czechfreepress.cz, Exanpro.cz and Skrytapravda.cz.

“The Court has no doubt that blocking certain websites at least affects freedom of expression and the right to information (…). However, it disagrees with the applicants that the letter of February 25, 2022, constitutes any authoritative instruction to its addressees,” the Court’s decision reads.

“Nor can bindingness be inferred from the language used; the verb “request” without more does not imply a command or binding instruction,” the panel of Judge Mark Bedrich added. He said the National Centre asked for cooperation, collaboration, or mutual assistance. “It was, therefore, up to the free choice of the recipients of the letter whether to obey the request and exercise their option to block the websites. The fact that they complied with the non-binding request cannot be attributed to the defendant (Ministry of Defence),” he added.

But at the same time, the Court said it was sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ concerns. “Blocking websites without a legal basis by public authorities would significantly interfere with fundamental rights, even if the state-enforced de facto blocking on private entities.”However, there is no hint of this in the case under review, as the defendant did not block the websites or order anyone to do so,” the judges concluded.

The plaintiffs disputed that the blocking was an independent decision by private entities. They viewed the letter as a de facto instruction. According to Open Society and the H21 Institute, the intervention violated the rule of law, freedom of expression, the right to receive information, freedom of thought, and scientific research. Commenting on the court order, they have now said that “the government should refrain from wanting to block disinformation websites until it has the law to do so.” “Clear rules for blocking, or not blocking at all, should be laid down quickly,” they stressed.

In its ruling, the Prague City Court pointed out that the Supreme Administrative Court had already commented on the nature of the letter. The Court also stated that the letter constituted a recommendation of the public authority, which was only an incentive to web admins or mobile operators, who did not have to respect it.