European courts have the power to order Facebook to take down content globally if that content is deemed illegal.
The European Court of Justice made the ruling Thursday in response to an Austrian politician, Green Party official Ewa Glawischnig-Piesczek, who wanted Facebook to remove disparaging comments about her that were found to be defamatory. Those comments, and “equivalent” posts, could be seen on the page of the original user and on other Facebook pages worldwide.
“E.U. 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,” the European Court of Justice said in a statement. “In addition, E.U. law does not preclude such an injunction from producing effects worldwide, within the framework of the relevant international law.”
The ruling could have broad implications for Facebook and similar platforms by putting a greater onus on them to monitor and filter content. Such online services have warned that freedom of speech could be eroded, even as they step up their own internal efforts to patrol for content deemed harmful to individuals, societies and even whole nations trying to conduct free and fair elections.
The case has highlighted the challenge that local legislatures and judiciaries have faced in trying to deal with the global Internet. The European Union has taken a more assertive stance, with courts ruling in favor of greater privacy and protections in terms of data collection and the so-called “right to be forgotten” – the right of individuals to have some information about them scrubbed from Google.
But those protections mostly apply within E.U. borders. Thursday’s decision by the European Court of Justice now allows for the removal of material globally.
The case at issue involved Facebook posts that used insulting language about Glawischnig-Piesczek, calling her a “traitor,” among other epithets. While in the U.S. such comments would be protected by the First Amendment, Glawischnig-Piesczek sued Facebook in an Austrian court, which ruled that the posts defamed her.
Thursday’s decision by the European Court of Justice, the E.U.’s highest court, cannot be appealed.