Europe’s highest court issued a controversial ruling Thursday with the potential to have staggeringly large implications worldwide. The Court of Justice of the European Union held that Facebook and other social platforms are not only obligated to proactively identify unlawful content but also to block it worldwide if a single country’s authorities demand it.
The ruling (PDF) stems from a case that began in Austria three years ago. A Facebook user posted comments about an Austrian politician, Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, that Austrian courts found to be illegally defamatory. Glawischnig-Piesczek in 2016 wrote to Facebook Ireland, the company’s EU headquarters, asking the company to delete the comments and limit access to them globally. Facebook refused, Glawischnig-Piesczek sued, and the results of the years of legal wrangling are out today.
A service is not liable for information it’s hosting “if it has no knowledge of its illegal nature or if it acts expeditiously to remove or disable access” to the illegal content as soon as it becomes aware of it, the court said; the United States operates under a similar standard. The EU’s directive on electronic commerce also “prohibits any requirement for the host provider,” meaning a company such as Facebook, “to monitor generally information which it stores or to seek actively facts or circumstances indicating illegal activity,” the court said.
But that directive does not preclude an EU member nation from ordering a service to remove or block access to content that is identical or equivalent to content that has been deemed unlawful in the past, the court ruled. Nations can require, the court said, the use of automated technologies and filters to make it happen. Crucially, the directive also does not prohibit EU member nations from requiring platforms to remove or block access to such information worldwide, “within the framework of the relevant international law.”