The top court in the European Union has ruled Facebook must delete content globally, not just in Europe, if a European court decides that the content is defamatory. The case was brought by an Austrian politician who said that a Facebook user had defamed and insulted her by writing she was a “corrupt oaf,” among other things.
In a judgment published today, the European Court of Justice ruled that Facebook is exempt from having to proactively police all of the content on its platform in Europe, but the social media giant must now delete offending content for all users around the world if it’s found to be illegal in Europe. The ruling presents a tricky situation, to say the least, given the fact that defamatory laws differ greatly across countries.
The particular case ruled on today centres around Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, a chairperson for the Greens party in Austria. As court filings explain, a private citizen in Austria shared an article on Facebook about Glawischnig-Piesczek and called her a “lousy traitor of the people” and a member of a “fascist party,” among other names. The article appeared on the Austrian news website oe24.at and was titled, “Greens: Minimum income for refugees should stay.”
Glawischnig-Piesczek wrote a letter to Facebook’s European headquarters in Ireland in July of 2016 asking that the Facebook post be deleted. Facebook refused, so the politician sued and won. The kind of insulting language used in that particular Facebook post is largely considered par for the course in the U.S. these days, but it was deemed defamatory by Austria’s Supreme Court.
The remaining question for the European Court of Justice was whether Facebook would be compelled to restrict the post outside of Europe. Facebook had argued that it would unfairly restrict free speech rights in other countries, but in the end, the social media company lost. In yet another wrinkle, the court found that Facebook is required to remove any “identical” content that may be deemed defamatory.
Today’s ruling against Facebook is almost the exact opposite of a case that was recently decided in Europe over “right to be forgotten” laws. Just last month, the European Court of Justice ruled that even if Google is required to delist links under “right to be forgotten” laws in Europe, it didn’t need to delist that same material around the globe.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. There’s no higher judicial authority to which the social media giant can appeal in Europe.