Landmark EU Ruling Will See Facebook Face Tougher Controls

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The EU’s highest court rules that social media sites can be ordered to take down unlawful material. 

Social media companies and websites can now be ordered to remove or block access to illegal posts worldwide, following an EU ruling,

Platforms, such as Facebook, may also have to hunt-down and remove similar examples of the illegal content, instead of waiting for them to be reported. The judgement, made by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, has been described as a significant ruling with global implications for how countries can expand content bans beyond their boarders.

The move has been condemned by free speech campaigners for imposing restrictions on online comments, with Facebook saying it raised “critical questions around freedom of expression.” Critics have said the ruling will further push the transformation of online platforms into traditional media outlets. However, others view the ruling as a win for EU regulators, who have been striving for tech giants to meet higher standards over content.

The ruling has stemmed from a case involving Austrian politician Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, in which her country’s courts claimed insults on Facebook had damaged her reputation. The former leader of Austria’s Green Party, wanted Facebook to delete the content in the country and limit worldwide access to it. In addition, Glawischnig-Piesczek demanded that Facebook revealed the identity of the people responsible for the most virulent comments. The case was referred to the ECJ for an opinion and judgement, which cannot be appealed.

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With the ruling, companies like Facebook and Twitter will be more strongly obligated to monitor and police their networks for content deemed to be offensive and hateful. The judgement could potentially impact how the internet is regulated in the future. It highlights the problem of creating uniform standards to govern the worldwide web. Critics warned before the ruling that allowing a single nation force an internet platform to delete content permitted elsewhere could limit freedom of speech.

However, supporters of the ruling say that, to date, defamation laws have not been properly enforced online, and there is a real need to compel social media companies to do more to combat cyberbullies, purveyors of hate speech and other forms of personal attacks that are spread online.

“This judgement raises critical questions around freedom of expression and the role that internet companies should play in monitoring, interpreting and removing speech that might be illegal in any particular country,” Facebook said in a statement.

“It undermines the longstanding principle that one country does not have the right to impose its laws on speech on another country. It also opens the door to obligations being imposed on internet companies to proactively monitor content and then interpret if it is ‘equivalent’ to content that has been found to be illegal.”

Facebook has been vocal in asserting the impartiality of its platform and argued it should not be held accountable for material posted by its billions of users.

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