When and where Facebook has to remove illegal information – an EU perspective

pexels-photo-1471752.jpegThe Advocate General of the European Court   has given its position on case C‑18/18 Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek срещу Facebook Ireland Limited, which concerns the following:

Ms Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek was a member of the Nationalrat (National Council, Austria), chair of the parliamentary party die Grünen (‘the Greens’) and the federal spokesperson of that party.

Facebook Ireland Limited, a company registered in Ireland having its headquarters in Dublin, is a subsidiary of the United States corporation Facebook Inc. Facebook Ireland operates, for users outside the United States and Canada, an online social network platform accessible at the address http://www.facebook.com. That platform enables users to create profile pages and to publish comments.

On 3 April 2016 a user of that platform shared on their personal page an article from the Austrian online news magazine oe24.at entitled ‘Greens: Minimum income for refugees should stay’. That publication had the effect of generating on the platform a ‘thumbnail’ of the original site, containing the title and a brief summary of the article, and a photograph of the applicant. That user also published, in connection with that article, an accompanying disparaging comment about the applicant accusing her of being a ‘lousy traitor of the people’, a ‘corrupt oaf’ and a member of a ‘fascist party’. The content placed online by that user could be consulted by any user of the platform in question.

By letter of 7 July 2016, the applicant, inter alia, asked Facebook Ireland to delete that comment.

As Facebook Ireland did not remove the comment in question, the applicant brought an action before the Handelsgericht Wien (Commercial Court, Vienna, Austria) and requested that court to issue an injunction ordering Facebook Ireland to cease publication and/or dissemination of the photographs of the applicant if the accompanying message disseminated the same allegations and/or ‘equivalent content’, namely that the applicant was a ‘lousy traitor of the people’ and/or a ‘corrupt oaf’ and/or a member of a ‘fascist party’.

On 7 December 2016 the Handelsgericht Wien (Commercial Court, Vienna) made the interlocutory order applied for.

Facebook Ireland subsequently disabled access in Austria to the content initially published.

On appeal, the Oberlandesgericht Wien (Higher Regional Court, Vienna, Austria) upheld the order made at first instance as regards the identical allegations. In doing so, it did not grant Facebook Ireland’s request that the interlocutory order be limited to the Republic of Austria. On the other hand, it held that the obligation to cease the dissemination of allegations of equivalent content related only to those brought to the knowledge of Facebook Ireland by the applicant in the main proceedings, by third parties or otherwise.

The courts of first and second instance based their decisions on Paragraph 78 of the UrhG and Paragraph 1330 of the ABGB, and took the view, in particular, that the public comment contained statements which were excessively harmful to the applicant’s reputation and gave the impression that she was involved in unlawful conduct, without providing the slightest evidence in that regard. Nor, according to those courts, was it permissible to rely on the right to freedom of expression for statements relating to a politician if there was no connection with a political debate or a debate that was in the public interest.

The two parties to the main proceedings brought actions before the Oberster Gerichtshof (Supreme Court, Austria), which considered that the statements at issue were intended to damage the applicant’s reputation, to insult her and to defame her.

The referring court is required to adjudicate on the question whether the cease and desist order made against a host provider which operates a social network with a large number of users may also be extended, worldwide, to statements with identical wording and/or having equivalent content of which it is not aware.

In that regard, the Oberster Gerichtshof (Supreme Court) states that, according to its own case-law, such an obligation must be considered to be proportionate where the service provider was already aware that the interests of the person concerned had been harmed on at least one occasion as a result of the contribution of a recipient of the service and where the risk that other infringements would be committed is thus demonstrated.

It was in those circumstances that the Oberster Gerichtshof (Supreme Court), by decision of 25 October 2017, received at the Court on 10 January 2018, decided to stay proceedings and to refer the following questions to the Court:

‘(1) Does Article 15(1) of Directive [2000/31] generally preclude any of the obligations listed below of a host provider which has not expeditiously removed illegal information, specifically not just this illegal information within the meaning of Article 14(1)(a) of [that] directive, but also other identically worded items of information:

(a)  worldwide?

(b)  in the relevant Member State?

(c)  of the relevant user worldwide?

(d)  of the relevant user in the relevant Member State?

(2)  In so far as Question 1 is answered in the negative: Does this also apply in each case for information with an equivalent meaning?

(3)   Does this also apply for information with an equivalent meaning as soon as the operator has become aware of this circumstance?’

The Advocate’s opinion:

(1) Article 15(1) of Directive 2000/31/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2000 on certain legal aspects of information society services, in particular electronic commerce, in the Internal Market (‘the Directive on electronic commerce’) must be interpreted as meaning that it does not preclude a host provider which operates a social network platform from being ordered, in the context of an injunction, to seek and identify, among all the information disseminated by users of that platform, the information identical to the information that has been characterised as illegal by a court that issued that injunction. In the context of such an injunction, a host provider may be ordered to seek and identify the information equivalent to that characterised as illegal only among the information disseminated by the user that disseminated that illegal information. A court adjudicating on the removal of such equivalent information must ensure that the effects of its injunction are clear, precise and foreseeable. In doing so, it must weigh up the fundamental rights involved and take account of the principle of proportionality.

(2) As regards the territorial scope of a removal obligation imposed on a host provider in the context of an injunction, it should be considered that that obligation is not regulated either by Article 15(1) of Directive 2000/31 or by any other provision of that directive and that that provision therefore does not preclude that host provider from being ordered to remove worldwide information disseminated via a social network platform. Nor is that territorial scope regulated by EU law, since in the present case the applicant’s action is not based on EU law.

(3)  Article 15(1) of Directive 2000/31 must be interpreted as meaning that it does not preclude a host provider from being ordered to remove information equivalent to the information characterised as illegal, provided that a removal obligation does not entail general monitoring of the information stored, and is the consequence of awareness resulting from the notification made by the person concerned, third parties or another source.

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