EU Courts Can Order Facebook to Remove Illegal Comments Worldwide

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Courts in individual European Union countries have the right to order social media giant Facebook to remove, across the world, user posts that have been declared illegal, the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, found in a Thursday ruling.

But it said that Facebook and others are "not liable for stored information if it has no knowledge of its illegal nature or if it acts expeditiously to remove or to disable access to that information as soon as it becomes aware of it."

Observers have said the decision would be a blow to internet giants, putting more responsibility on them for patrolling their sites for content that has been ruled illegal, such as hate speech.

The ruling comes amid a case brought in Austria by a former politician of the country's Green Party who sought an order that Facebook, led by chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, remove comments posted by a user on their personal page, which Austrian courts found to have been harmful to her reputation, along with "equivalent" messages posted by others elsewhere.

The European court has now interpreted the relevant directive on electronic commerce, finding that "EU law does not preclude a host provider like Facebook from being ordered to remove identical and, in certain circumstances, equivalent comments previously declared to be illegal. In addition, EU law does not preclude such an injunction from producing effects worldwide, within the framework of the relevant international law, which it is for member states to take into account."

But the court also highlighted: "Under that directive, a host provider such as Facebook is not liable for stored information if it has no knowledge of its illegal nature or if it acts expeditiously to remove or to disable access to that information as soon as it becomes aware of it." It added: "The directive prohibits any requirement for the host provider to monitor generally information which it stores or to seek actively facts or circumstances indicating illegal activity."

In a non-binding opinion published in June that Facebook criticized, an adviser at the EU court said the company could be ordered to remove offensive content posted by its users in the EU and look for similar posts worldwide. Facebook in a statement back then said that "the scope of court orders from one country must be limited to its borders."

On Thursday, a Facebook representative said about the EU ruling: "This judgement raises critical questions around freedom of expression and the role that internet companies should play in monitoring, interpreting and removing speech that might be illegal in any particular country. At Facebook, we already have community standards, which outline what people can and cannot share on our platform, and we have a process in place to restrict content if and when it violates local laws. This ruling goes much further. It undermines the long-standing principle that one country does not have the right to impose its laws on speech on another country. It also opens the door to obligations being imposed on internet companies to proactively monitor content and then interpret if it is “equivalent” to content that has been found to be illegal. In order to get this right national courts will have to set out very clear definitions on what 'identical' and 'equivalent' means in practice. We hope the courts take a proportionate and measured approach, to avoid having a chilling effect on freedom of expression."

This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.


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