Facebook, in Fresh Blow in Europe, Must Remove More Content if Ordered

le 5 October 2019

Court rules tech giant must comply with judges’ orders to remove reposts

By Sam Schechner – The Wall Street Journal


The European Union’s top court gave judges in the bloc broader power to order the removal of Facebook posts, dealing a fresh blow to the U.S. tech giant as it faces growing regulatory headwinds on both sides of the Atlantic.

The EU’s Court of Justice said Thursday that a judge in one of the bloc’s member states can order Facebook Inc. FB 2.74% or other social-media companies to scan for and remove posts that are identical—or in some cases merely “equivalent”—to content that has already been ruled illegal in that country. The court also said that nothing in EU law stops judges from ordering social-media companies to apply such orders globally, provided they do so “within the framework of the relevant international law.”

The decision is a new hit to tech companies and free-speech activists in a continuing fight over how—and where—to regulate speech on the internet.

On the one hand, policy makers in Europe and elsewhere have proposed new laws that make hosting companies more responsible for what their users post online, part of a growing backlash against the power and influence of tech companies such as Facebook, including complaints they don’t do enough to stop the spread of disinformation.

On the other hand, tech companies and free-speech activists say they worry that a thicket of overlapping defamation and content-removal laws could lead companies to take down otherwise legitimate content, curbing free expression on the internet. They also have argued—most recently in a case that Alphabet Inc. ’s Google won—that forcing global removals of content ruled illegal in one country could give tyrants and despots new tools for censorship.

Thursday’s decision “undermines the longstanding 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,” a Facebook representative said.

Facebook already removes content when specifically requested under local law, but in many cases leaves it accessible in other parts of the world. Between July and December 2018, the most recent period for which Facebook has published data, the most content restrictions came in India, Pakistan and Brazil. But three of the top 15 countries were in Europe: In that period, Facebook restricted 1,148 pieces of content in Germany, 571 in Italy and 227 in France, the figures show.

The push to force broader removal of content by social-media companies is a shift from an older model, where companies have often remained protected by generation-old rules that shield them from liability for content their users disseminate until they are specifically notified of it.

Those rules were what were at issue in Thursday’s ruling, which held that the EU’s two-decade-old E-Commerce Directive didn’t forbid a court from ordering Facebook to remove content equivalent to that it had already found to be illegal.

The court said that any monitoring for such equivalent posts must only cover content that is “essentially unchanged,” with the court specifying that any differences in wording must be so minor that they don’t “require the host provider to carry out an independent assessment of that content.”

The shift has been coming for some time. In 2013, a French court ruled that Google must automatically remove from its search results reposts of nine specific images of a sexual escapade involving former Formula One racing boss Max Mosley that a U.K. court had previously ordered removed, without Mr. Mosley having to seek a new court order each time.

Thursday’s ruling originated from a case brought by a former head of the Green Party bloc in Austria’s Parliament who wanted Facebook to remove a defamatory comment about her, as well as reposts of it.