LONDON — Europe’s top court said on Thursday that an individual country can order Facebook to take down posts, photographs and videos and restrict global access to that material, in a ruling that has implications for whether countries can expand content bans beyond their borders.
The European Court of Justice’s decision came after a former Austrian politician sought to have Facebook remove disparaging comments about her that had been posted on an individual’s personal page, as well as “equivalent” messages posted by others. The politician, Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, a former leader of Austria’s Green Party, argued that Facebook needed to delete the material in the country and limit worldwide access.
The decision is a blow to big internet platforms like Facebook, placing more responsibility on them to patrol their sites for content ruled illegal.
The case has been closely watched because of its potential ripple effects for regulating internet content. The enforcement of defamation, libel and privacy laws varies from country to country, with language and behavior that is allowed in one nation prohibited in another. The court’s decision highlights the difficulty of creating uniform standards to govern an inherently borderless web and then enforcing them.
Facebook and other critics have warned that letting a single nation force an internet platform to delete material elsewhere would hurt free expression. Implementing such a global ban would likely require the use of automated content filters, which civil society groups and others have cautioned could lead to the takedown of legitimate material because filters cannot detect nuances used in satire and some political speech. Removing not just the original post, but those considered “equivalent,” adds further complication and potential for unintended consequences, opponents argued prior to the decision.
Supporters counter that defamation laws haven’t been enforced appropriately in the internet age and are needed to force platforms like Facebook to do more to combat internet trolls, hate speech and other personal attacks that spread on the web.
As Europe has enacted tougher policies on privacy and internet content, courts are being asked to clarify their reach, including if Facebook, Google and other platforms must apply the rules beyond the borders of the 28-nation European Union.
Last week, the European Court of Justice limited the reach of the European privacy law known as the “right to be forgotten,” which allows European citizens to demand Google remove links to sensitive personal data from search results. The court said Google could not be ordered to remove links to websites globally, except in certain circumstances when weighed against the rights to free expression and the public’s right to information.
On Thursday, the Luxembourg-based court turned its attention to the reach of European defamation laws. It ruled a national court of a European Union country can order Facebook to remove posts considered defamatory in regions beyond its jurisdiction.
The court said that while Facebook wasn’t initially responsible for the disparaging comments posted about Ms. Glawischnig-Piesczek, it had an obligation to take down the posts after a court ruled them defamatory. Facebook, the court said, “did not act expeditiously to remove or to disable access to that information.”
Facebook and other critics argued the rules could be abused by individuals to censor unflattering, embarrassing or critical material.
The court’s decision cannot be appealed.
Facebook has long said it is an impartial platform and not legally responsible for material posted by its more than 2 billion users. Yet with increased scrutiny from policymakers around the world, the social network has taken steps to limit hate speech and extremism on its site. Last month, it appointed an 11-member oversight board to review content decisions.
The European Court of Justice decision was rooted in events from 2016, when a Facebook user in Austria posted a link to a news article about immigration that included comments calling Ms. Glawischnig-Piesczek a “lousy traitor of the people’, “corrupt oaf” and member of a “fascist party.”
Facebook initially refused demands to remove the material. In many countries the comments would be considered acceptable, if vulgar, political speech.
Ms. Glawischnig-Piesczek successfully sued Facebook in Austrian courts, which concluded the comments were intended to damage her reputation. She also demanded that Facebook remove posts that were similar in tone to the original insults.
The Austrian Supreme Court referred the case the European Court of Justice for a ruling on the legality of Facebook monitoring its users’ comments to filter certain material, as well as whether the company should be forced to delete content beyond Austria.