Facebook to Appeal Global Hate Speech Order in Austria

May 11, 2017, 1:18 PM UTC
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Facebook says it will appeal a controversial court order that requires it to impose an Austrian law worldwide, which critics warn will pose new dangers to free speech on the Internet.

The court case involves comments posted to Facebook about the leader of Austria’s Green Party, which the party claims are illegal under the country’s hate speech laws. An appeals court in Vienna agreed and ordered Facebook to take them down not just in Austria but everywhere else as well.

“[The] court ruled on Friday that Facebook must remove the postings against Greens leader Eva Glawischnig as well as any verbatim repostings, and said merely blocking them in Austria without deleting them for users abroad was not sufficient,” according to Reuters.

In practice, this means Facebook would have to prevent users in places like New Zealand or the U.S.—which don’t have European-style hate speech laws—from seeing or sharing the post.

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The case is similar to a handful of other ones, involving Google, in which courts in Europe and Canada declare they have the power to impose laws particular to their country around the world.

According to Daphne Keller, a lawyer at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University, the Austrian ruling may be “dangerous and short-sighted” because it could embolden other countries to impose local laws everywhere on Facebook.

“Should Facebook comply globally with Russia’s anti-gay laws, or Thailand’s laws against insulting the king, or Saudi Arabia’s blasphemy laws? Would Austria want those laws to dictate what speech its citizens can share online? This ruling sends a signal to courts around the world that they, too, can enforce their national laws to ban speech around the world,” said Keller in an email to Fortune.

She added that Facebook regularly removes content viewed as hate speech. In this case, though, Keller says Facebook appeared to treat the comments in question as a political speech exception, which makes the court ruling troubling.

Facebook declined to comment on Monday in response to initial media reports. But on Wednesday, a spokesperson confirmed the company would appeal.

‘There is no place for hate speech on Facebook and this post was removed from our platform last year as requested. However, we will appeal this particular case before the Austrian Supreme Court to have better legal clarity around this specific post and the categorization as “unlawful” as the new decision substantially reversed the original court decision,” said the spokesperson.
The appeal means Facebook will be joining Google in a larger legal fight over whether national courts should be able to impose their law everywhere on the Internet.
The most high profile case so far involves France’s data regulator ordering Google to remove search links around the world under the so-called “right to be forgotten.” Meanwhile, Canada’s Supreme Court is set to rule on whether a lower court can issue a global order to remove search results under the country’s trade secret laws.
If the European courts orders are allowed to stand, and judges there can issue worldwide orders when it comes to hate speech and the right-to-be-forgotten, Google and Facebook will face a hard dilemma. If they comply, they risk encouraging a global censorship movement. And if they don’t, regulators could impose fines worth tens of millions of dollars.
The Austrian Green Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment, submitted to the party’s EU affiliate, about how the Vienna court case could affect free speech.

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