A ruling by the EU’s highest court could found that Facebook and similar platforms can be ordered to remove illegal content worldwide. The social media giant may also have to seek out similar examples to remove them before they’re reported.

An EU member state can order removal if the content is found to be illegal, extending it to a worldwide takedown if there’s a relevant treaty or international law in place. The CJEU ruling follows a case surrounding Austrian Green Party politician Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, who complained to Facebook Ireland over a post that defamed her.

The fact Facebook will have to actively seek out and remove similar content is a major change here. Previously, it was only liable for specific content that it knew of (reposts would have to be individually identified), but that’s no longer an exemption. If it’s approached with a court order saying a user has been defamed, it will now have to proactively search for different variations of that content.

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Facebook said the judgment “Undermines the longstanding principle that one country does not have the right to impose its laws on speech on another country”, and some privacy campaigners echoed sentiments about free speech.

One of those was privacy charity Article 19, who’s executive director said, “This judgment has major implications for online freedom of expression around the world”.

What’s the Impact of Free Speech?

Particular concern surrounds the fact Glawischnig-Piesczek’s complaint was politics-related. Some are worried such a law could limit user’s freedom of expression, even in private groups, especially if an automated AI system is involved.

However, some experts are less concerned. According to the Times, Cambridge University’s David Erdos said that he believes the opinion is narrowly crafted and urges national courts to weigh bans carefully against international laws. It will likely take courts some time to work out exactly where they stand.

While the word ‘equivalent’ is admittedly vague, according to the judgment, courts will have to name specific elements that were part of the previous injunction.

“…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,” reads the ruling.

Likewise, posts that are simply defamous are unlikely to be removed across the board due to a lack of an international legal framework.

Facebook is unable to appeal against the ruling, and both it and some privacy campaigners believe more clarity is required surrounding the definitions or equivalent and identical content.

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