Facebook lost a takedown order lawsuit in the EU

pexels-photo-927629.jpegThe European Court has issued a decision on the case Case C‑18/18, Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek v 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 federal spokesperson for that party.

Facebook Ireland operates a global social media platform (‘Facebook Service’) for users located outside the United States of America and Canada.

On 3 April 2016, a Facebook Service user shared on that user’s personal page an article from the Austrian online news magazine oe24.at entitled ‘Greens: Minimum income for refugees should stay’, which had the effect of generating on that page a ‘thumbnail’ of the original site, containing the title and a brief summary of the article, and a photograph of Ms Glawischnig-Piesczek. That user also published, in connection with that article, a comment which the referring court found to be harmful to the reputation of the applicant in the main proceedings, and which insulted and defamed her. This post could be accessed by any Facebook user.

By letter of 7 July 2016, Ms Glawischnig-Piesczek, inter alia, asked Facebook Ireland to delete that comment.

Because Facebook Ireland did not withdraw the comment in question, Ms Glawischnig-Piesczek brought an action before the Handelsgericht Wien (Commercial Court, Vienna, Austria) which, by interim order of 7 December 2016, directed Facebook Ireland, with immediate effect and until the proceedings relating to the action for a prohibitory injunction have been finally concluded, to cease and desist from publishing and/or disseminating photographs showing the applicant [in the main proceedings] if the accompanying text contained the assertions, verbatim and/or using words having an equivalent meaning as that of the comment referred to in paragraph 12 above.

Facebook Ireland 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. However, it also held that the dissemination of allegations of equivalent content had to cease only as regards those brought to the knowledge of Facebook Ireland by the applicant in the main proceedings, by third parties or otherwise.

The Handelsgericht Wien (Commercial Court, Vienna) and the Oberlandesgericht Wien (Higher Regional Court, Vienna) based their decisions on Paragraph 78 of the Law on copyright and Paragraph 1330 of the General Civil Code, on the ground, inter alia, that the published comment contained statements which were excessively harmful to the reputation of Ms Glawischnig-Piesczek and, in addition, gave the impression that she was involved in unlawful conduct, without providing the slightest evidence in that regard.

Each of the parties in the main proceedings lodged appeals on a point of law at the Oberster Gerichtshof (Supreme Court, Austria).

Having been called on to adjudicate 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 to statements with identical wording and/or having equivalent content of which it is not aware, the Oberster Gerichtshof (Supreme Court) states that, in accordance with its own case-law, such an obligation must be considered to be proportionate where the host provider was already aware that the interests of the person concerned had been harmed on at least one occasion as a result of a user’s post and the risk that other infringements may be committed is thus demonstrated.

However, considering that the dispute before it raises questions of the interpretation of EU law, the Oberster Gerichtshof (Supreme Court) decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following questions to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:

‘(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:

–  worldwide;

–  in the relevant Member State;

–  of the relevant user worldwide;

–  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 Court’s decision:

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 (‘Directive on electronic commerce’), in particular Article 15(1), must be interpreted as meaning that it does not preclude a court of a Member State from:

– ordering a host provider to remove information which it stores, the content of which is identical to the content of information which was previously declared to be unlawful, or to block access to that information, irrespective of who requested the storage of that information;

– ordering a host provider to remove information which it stores, the content of which is equivalent to the content of information which was previously declared to be unlawful, or to block access to that information, provided that the monitoring of and search for the information concerned by such an injunction are limited to information conveying a message the content of which remains essentially unchanged compared with the content which gave rise to the finding of illegality and containing the elements specified in the injunction, and provided that the differences in the wording of that equivalent content, compared with the wording characterising the information which was previously declared to be illegal, are not such as to require the host provider to carry out an independent assessment of that content, and

–  ordering a host provider to remove information covered by the injunction or to block access to that information worldwide within the framework of the relevant international law.