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EU can order Facebook to remove illegal content worldwide, court rules

Facebook may need to take down content that's illegal in EU countries even if it's posted by users from elsewhere.

In this photo illustration a American online social media
Facebook is unhappy with the court's decision.
Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The European Union can order Facebook to monitor and remove illegal content from the platform, even if it's posted by people outside of the EU, according to a landmark ruling by Europe's top court.

The Court of Justice of the European Union said that Facebook may need to comply with takedown requests globally. "EU law does not preclude a host provider such as Facebook from being ordered to remove identical and, in certain circumstances, equivalent comments previously declared to be illegal," the court said Thursday in a press release.

The ruling relates to the case of Eva Glawisching-Piesczek, the chairwoman of Greens Parliamentary Party in Austria who asked an Austrian court to order Facebook to remove comments that she said were defamatory.

Facebook criticized the judgment, saying that it raised some major questions around freedom of expression and the role internet companies should play in monitoring and removing illegal content.

"At Facebook, we already have Community Standards which outline what people can and cannot share on our platform, and we have a process in place to restrict content if and when it violates local laws," said a spokesman for the company. "This ruling goes much further. It undermines the long-standing principle that one country does not have the right to impose its laws on speech on another country... We hope the courts take a proportionate and measured approach, to avoid having a chilling effect on freedom of expression."

The decision arrives amid a debate about how far-reaching EU laws can be in forcing internet companies to remove content. It follows a ruling last week by the same court that stated Google doesn't have to apply the "right to be forgotten" by European citizens globally.

Article 19, a UK-based advocacy group for freedom of expression, said the court's decision means that social media platforms could be compelled to automatically filter users' posts. Thomas Hughes, Article 19's executive director, said the ruling might mean that EU states can order the removal of content in other countries, even if the content in question is not illegal there.

"This would set a dangerous precedent where the courts of one country can control what internet users in another country can see," he said. "This could be open to abuse, particularly by regimes with weak human rights records."