Facebook can be told to cast a wider net to find illegal content, says EU court advisor

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How much of an obligation should social media platforms be under to hunt down illegal content?

An influential advisor to Europe’s top court has taken the view that social media platforms like Facebook can be required to seek out and identify posts that are equivalent to content that an EU court has deemed illegal — such as hate speech or defamation — if the comments have been made by the same user.

Platforms can also be ordered to hunt for identical repostings of the illegal content.

But there should not be an obligation for platforms to identify equivalent defamatory comments that have been posted by any user, with the advocate general opining that such a broad requirement would not ensure a fair balance between the fundamental rights concerned — flagging risks to free expression and free access to information.

“An obligation to identify equivalent information originating from any user would not ensure a fair balance between the fundamental rights concerned. On the one hand, seeking and identifying such information would require costly solutions. On the other hand, the implementation of those solutions would lead to censorship, so that freedom of expression and information might well be systematically restricted.”

We covered this referral to the CJEU last year.

It’s an interesting case that blends questions of hate speech moderation and the limits of robust political speech, given that the original 2016 complaint of defamation was made by the former leader of the Austrian Green Party, Eva Glawischnig.

An Austrian court agreed with Glawischnig that hate speech posts made about her on Facebook were defamatory and ordered the company to remove them. Facebook did so, but only in Austria. Glawischnig challenged its partial takedown and in May 2017 a local appeals court ruled that it must remove both the original posts and any verbatim repostings and do so worldwide, not just in Austria. 

Further legal appeals led to the referral to the CJEU which is being asked to determine where the line should be drawn for similarly defamatory postings, and whether takedowns can be applied globally or only locally.

On the global takedowns point, the advocate general believes that existing EU law does not present an absolute blocker to social media platforms being ordered to remove information worldwide.

“Both the question of the extraterritorial effects of an injunction imposing a removal obligation and the question of the territorial scope of such an obligation should be analysed, in particular, by reference to public and private international law,” runs the non-binding opinion.

Another element relates to the requirement under existing EU law that platforms should not be required to carry out general monitoring of information they store — and specifically whether that directive precludes platforms from being ordered to remove “information equivalent to the information characterised as illegal” when they have been made aware of it by the person concerned, third parties or another source. 

On that, the AG takes the view that the EU’s e-Commerce Directive does not prevent platforms from being ordered to take down equivalent illegal content when it’s been flagged to them by others — writing that, in that case, “the removal obligation does not entail general monitoring of information stored”.

Advocate General Maciej Szpunar’s opinion — which can be read in full here — is not the last word on the matter, with the court still to deliberate and issue its final decision (usually within three to six months of an AG opinion). However advisors to the CJEU are influential and tend to predict which way the court will jump.

We reached out to Facebook for comment. A spokesperson for the company told us:

This case raises important questions about freedom of expression online and about the role that internet platforms should play in locating and removing speech, particularly when it comes to political discussions and criticizing elected officials. We remove content that breaks the law and our priority is always to keep people on Facebook safe. However this opinion undermines the long-standing principle that one country should not have the right to limit free expression in other countries. We hope the CJEU will clarify that, even in the age of the internet, the scope of court orders from one country must be limited to its borders.

This report was updated with comment from Facebook

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