The decision by the European Court of Justice is a significant event in the question of how much responsibility social platforms have for their content.
Thursday’s verdict is the result of a complaint from former Austrian Green Party leader Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, who argued Facebook should be responsible for damaging remarks that were posted to her page.
“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 wrote in its ruling.
“In addition, EU law does not preclude such an injunction from producing effects worldwide, within the framework of the relevant international law.”
The court explained that platforms like Facebook are not responsible for initial postings, but they are obligated to take action after the fact, if so ordered.
“A host provider such as Facebook is not liable for stored information if it has no knowledge of its illegal nature or if it acts expeditiously to remove or to disable access to that information as soon as it becomes aware of it,” the ruling states.
“That exemption does not, however, prevent the host provider from being ordered to terminate or prevent an infringement, including by removing the illegal information or by disabling access to it.”
The court said it tried to strike a balance between conflicting interests, but decided it is a provider’s responsibility to remove content that’s been “declared unlawful.”
Facebook was critical of the ruling, and predicted it will have a negative effect on freedom of expression.
“It undermines the longstanding principle that one country does not have the right to impose its laws on speech on another country,” the company said. “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.”