On Thursday, the European Union’s top court ruled that lower court judges could order Facebook to remove illegal comments from its platform, expanding on the power individual countries have to extend content bans across the world.
The European Court of Justice came to its decision after an Austrian politician, Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, requested an order that would force Facebook to remove comments that were “harmful to her reputation.” Glawischnig-Piesczek argued that Facebook should remove the comments and limit access to them worldwide. The court ruled against Facebook, dealing a heavy hit on tech companies as lawmakers and platforms continue to discuss how to regulate online speech.
“EU 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 court said in a statement. “In addition, EU law does not preclude such an injunction from producing effects worldwide, within the framework of the relevant international law.”
In its ruling, the European Court of Justice affirms that companies like Facebook and Twitter are not liable for the content posted on their platforms, but that exemption does not prohibit the courts from ordering the companies to take down illegal content. Late last month, this same court ruled that Google doesn’t need to remove links taken down from “right to be forgotten” requests worldwide. But illegal content can be limited internationally, according to Thursday’s Facebook ruling.
Facebook opposed the ruling. “This judgment raises critical questions around 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,” the company said in a statement.
“It 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.”