Facebook received yet another challenge to its ideas of jurisdiction on Friday, when a Paris appeals court said it could be sued in France over its suspension of an account.
The court backed the right of art expert Jean-Jacques Fernier to sue Facebook
for suspending his account five years ago without prior notice, because he posted a picture of a 160-year-old Gustave Courbet painting that depicts female genitalia.
The ruling was important because Facebook’s terms and conditions state users can only resolve disputes with the firm “in the US District Court for the Northern District of California or a state court located in San Mateo County.”
Not so, said the French court, which upheld a lower court’s ruling that this term is “abusive” as it makes it near impossible for people in France to sue Facebook.
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“This case dates back more than five years and Facebook has evolved considerably since then,” the firm said. “While we are disappointed by today’s ruling on jurisdiction, we remain confident that the court will find the underlying case itself to be without merit.”
Facebook claimed the ruling did not set a broad precedent on the jurisdiction front. That remains to be seen, but the ruling does continue an interesting trend of national courts insisting that they have jurisdiction over Facebook and other multinational tech firms.
Last year, Facebook faced defeat in the Belgian courts over a lawsuit by the country’s privacy watchdog. The regulator wanted a type of cease-and-desist order against Facebook over its tracking of non-users. The social network argued that, under guidance set out by EU data protection regulators, it only needed to answer to the privacy watchdog of Ireland, where its EU operations are headquartered.
The Brussels Court of First Instance disagreed with Facebook and granted the Belgian regulator the ability to serve Facebook with its cease-and-desist order, which it duly did. The ruling was only an interim ruling ahead of a “full-merits” case that will be heard at a later date, and Facebook is appealing, but it’s in force and it was a big blow to the company.
That ruling, incidentally, followed on from the European Court of Justice’s Google
Spain ruling of 2014 that said search engines must comply with the “right to be forgotten” by de-listing certain pieces of content. Crucially, the Google Spain ruling asserted that the Spanish courts had jurisdiction over Google because it had operations in that country, even though it was established over in the U.S.
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These may be different cases involving different laws in different countries, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that a trend is forming. National courts in European countries do not seem to like the idea that they cannot touch big tech firms that are operating on their turf, even if they point to terms and EU guidance that suggest they should lay off.
The question now is whether this trend continues, and the country to watch next is Germany, where two relevant court decisions are due this month.
In the coming days, Hamburg’s data protection authority will find out whether it can enforce an order on Facebook that forces the social network to let users adopt fake names. And next week, the data protection authority of Schleswig-Holstein will see if it’s successful in appealing a 2013 ruling that said it had no jurisdiction over Facebook (the watchdog is trying to sue an economics school for running a Facebook fanpage and thereby supposedly endangering visitors to its site).