By Ilana Siyance
E.U.’s top court has dealt an unprecedented blow to Facebook, ruling that the social media giant can be told by individual countries which posts to take down– globally. The decision sets a burdensome benchmark concerning the grip of European laws over the internet.
On Thursday, the European Court of Justice, located in Luxembourg, ruled in favor of Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, former leader of Austria’s Green Party, saying Facebook should indeed globally remove content that was disparaging to the Austrian politician. As reported by the NY Times, the ruling, which cannot be appealed, means that countries can force Facebook to delete posts, photographs and videos as ordered by a country’s court- beyond that country’s borders and around the world.
Glawischnig-Piesczek originally brought the lawsuit in 2016, when online comments called her a “lousy traitor,” “corrupt oaf” and member of a “fascist party” on Facebook. After a local Austrian court held that the comments did violate the country’s defamation laws, which are among the strictest, she demanded Facebook erase the original comments worldwide, along with posts with “equivalent” remarks. Facebook initially refused to take down the negative comments, saying that such posts, though defamatory, would be considered acceptable in other countries like the United States. Her case was elevated to the highest EU court, and on Thursday her case was validated.
The decision, which does not hold Facebook responsible for the comments, does place more responsibility on the internet company to patrol their sites for wrongdoing and to comply with the ruling of different countries to remove content that is disparaging, hateful or affects privacy issues.
Critical commentators say that the clause in the decision that also rules that “equivalent” posts be deleted, is so arbitrary to put into practice. The only viable way to put this into practice would be to add the use of automated content filters to find and block similar content. Experts have long warned that such filters would surely also take down legitimate material, and hosts of political commentary, barring free speech. Supporters for the ruling say that the precedent needs to be set for Facebook to become more active in combating internet trolls, hate speech and other personal attacks that have grown rampant on the web.
“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. He added that the ruling 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 decision invites inquiries into 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.”
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