Facebook Can Be Forced to Delete Content Worldwide, E.U.’s Top Court Rules

LONDON — Europe’s top court said on Thursday that individual countries can order Facebook to take down posts, photographs and videos not only in their own countries but elsewhere, in a ruling that extends the reach of the region’s internet-related laws beyond its own borders.

The European Court of Justice said Facebook could be forced to remove a post globally by a national court in the European Union’s 28-member bloc if the content was determined to be defamatory or otherwise illegal. Its decision cannot be appealed.

The ruling stemmed from a case involving an Austrian politician, Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, who sued the social network to expunge online comments that called her a “lousy traitor,” “corrupt oaf” and member of a “fascist party.” After an Austrian court found the comments violated defamation laws, she demanded Facebook erase the original comments worldwide, not just within the country, as well as posts with “equivalent” remarks.

The decision sets a new benchmark for the purview of European laws that govern the internet, giving European countries the power to apply takedown requests internationally. That foreshadows future disputes over Europe’s role in setting rules on the internet, especially as other nations increasingly pass their own laws to deal with privacy, hate speech and disinformation.

The judgment deals a blow to big internet platforms like Facebook, placing more responsibility on them to patrol their sites for wrongdoing as they contend with the swell of often-competing laws and regulations.

“There is this impulse in Europe that is trying to set global regulatory standards,” said Ben Wagner, director of the Privacy and Sustainable Computing Lab at Vienna University. The effort, he said, is a “pushback against the self-regulatory impulses of these platforms.”

Facebook said in a statement that the European court’s decision “undermines the longstanding principle that one country does not have the right to impose its laws on speech on another country.” It added that the judgment raised questions about 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.”

Ms. Glawischnig-Piesczek, the former leader of the Austrian Green Party, who brought the original lawsuit, did not respond to requests for comment.

Europe has long been more proactive than other regions — including the United States — in passing laws that regulate the internet. As Europe has enacted tougher policies, its courts are being asked to clarify their scope, including whether Facebook, Google and others must apply the rules beyond the European Union’s borders.

Last week, the European Court of Justice limited the reach of the privacy law known as the “right to be forgotten,” which lets European citizens demand that 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 through Ms. Glawischnig-Piesczek’s case, which she filed in 2016. Facebook initially refused to take down the post that criticized her. In many countries the comments about her would have been considered acceptable, if vulgar, political speech.

Ms. Glawischnig-Piesczek then sued Facebook in Austrian courts, which concluded the comments were defamatory and intended to damage her reputation. She also demanded that Facebook remove posts that were similar in tone to the original insults, taking the case all the way to the European Court of Justice.

The court said on Thursday that while Facebook wasn’t liable for the disparaging comments posted about Ms. Glawischnig-Piesczek, the company had an obligation to take them down after an Austrian court found them defamatory. Facebook, the court said, “did not act expeditiously to remove or to disable access to that information.”

The court left to national court systems in each European Union country to decide what cases merit forcing an internet company to take down content in foreign countries. That raised questions about what other laws Facebook and other internet platforms can be forced to comply with by governments in Europe.

French regulators have tested the expansion of privacy laws beyond the European Union. Germany has adopted strict laws to remove hate speech from social media platforms. Britain is considering new restrictions against “harmful” internet content.

“The key thing about this case is what preventive measures can be imposed on Facebook,” said Martin Husovec, an assistant law professor at Tilburg University’s Institute for Law, Technology and Society in the Netherlands.

But the decision is not likely to not lead to a flood of orders against Facebook to take down content globally, said David Erdos, deputy director of the Center for Intellectual Property and Information Law at Cambridge University. The opinion was narrowly crafted, he said, and urged national courts to weigh any bans carefully against international laws.

“Courts will be feeling their way for years to come,” he said.

Critics of the ruling said a global ban would require the use of automated content filters. Civil society groups and others have cautioned that such filters are ineffective and could lead to the takedown of legitimate material because filters cannot detect nuances in satire and some political commentary. They also argued that calling for the removal of posts considered “equivalent” added further confusion.

Supporters countered that defamation laws hadn’t been enforced appropriately in the internet age and were needed to force companies like Facebook to do more to combat internet trolls, hate speech and other personal attacks that spread on the web.

Facebook has long argued that it should not be held legally responsible for material posted by its more than two 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 outlined its plans for an oversight board to review content decisions.

Dr. Wagner at Vienna University said Thursday’s ruling raised broad concerns about restricting political speech, especially because Ms. Glawischnig-Piesczek is a public figure.

“We’re talking about a politician who is being insulted in a political context. That’s very different than a normal citizen,” he said. “There needs to be a greater scope for freedom of opinion and expression.”