Facebook Inc. can be forced to remove posts anywhere in the world to protect European Union users from hateful content, the bloc’s highest court ruled in a case that widens a chasm with the U.S. on freedom of speech and privacy.
European courts can force platforms such as the social-network giant to seek and destroy such content once they’ve been alerted, the EU judges said in a binding decision on Thursday. Courts can also order a worldwide removal as long as they take international law into account when they issue the edicts, the judges said.
“Today’s ruling essentially allows one country or region to decide what internet users around the world can say and what information they can access,” said Victoria de Posson, senior manager in Europe at the Computer & Communications Industry Assn., an industry group that includes Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook as members.
The EU has taken a tougher stance on citizens’ online rights than elsewhere in the world. In 2014, the EU’s top court gave people a so-called right to be forgotten, allowing them to ask Google to remove European links to websites that contain out-of-date or false information that could unfairly harm a person’s reputation. Still, in contrast to Thursday’s judgment, the same court decided last month against requiring search engines to scrub links globally.
“What might be considered defamatory comments about a politician in one country will likely be considered constitutional free speech in another. Few hosting platforms, especially startups, will have the resources to implement elaborate monitoring systems,” de Posson said.
Platforms from Facebook to Google’s YouTube won a nod of approval from the EU earlier this year for tackling hate speech posted online as part of a code of conduct signed with the commission in 2016. The companies vowed to tackle online hate speech within 24 hours, once made aware of it.
Facebook said the ruling goes beyond a process it already follows to “restrict content if and when it violates local laws.”
The judgment “undermines the long-standing principle that one country does not have the right to impose its laws on speech on another country,” Facebook said in an emailed statement. “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.”
The EU court decided that in some cases platforms can be ordered not just to remove identical content, but also posts that are equivalent to such hateful and illegal ones. According to Facebook and human rights group Article 19, this risks trampling on people’s fundamental rights.
“Compelling social media platforms like Facebook to automatically remove posts regardless of their context will infringe our right to free speech and restrict the information we see online,” said Thomas Hughes of Article 19. “The judgment does not take into account the limitations of technology when it comes to automated filters.”
In contrast to the U.S. where freedom of speech is a constitutional right, Europe has traditionally placed more limits on what people publish, forbidding Holocaust denial in Germany, for instance. That chasm is widening as Europe is becoming more aggressive in combating hate speech online to prevent violent attacks against groups, like the terrorist shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March.
Despite the platforms’ efforts, EU officials have been mulling new bloc-wide rules, building on existing legislation in Germany, that could hit big tech firms with possible fines if they fail to remove illegal hate speech quickly enough. The discussions fit into broader plans by the EU to overhaul liability rules for platforms.
Austria’s Supreme Court last year sought the EU judges’ guidance in a dispute between Facebook and Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, a former Green member of the European Parliament, who was the subject of a number of offensive posts on a Facebook user’s account. She asked for an order against the company to block any further publications of pictures of her if the text alongside them included similarly offensive content.
The Austrian court also asked whether under EU law companies could be forced to remove any content from its platform “with an equivalent meaning” to illegal information it has been made aware of. Lawyers said this is an issue also faced by copyright owners on platforms such as YouTube, or Instagram, where uploads of previously taken-down copies keep popping up online.
“We hope the courts take a proportionate and measured approach, to avoid having a chilling effect on freedom of expression,” said Facebook in its statement.