The European Union's highest court dealt a mighty blow against social media platforms with a decision earlier this month that extends the region's laws on defamatory content beyond its own borders. Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, a politician of Austria's Green Party, sued Facebook over comments made on the online platform calling her corrupt, fascist, and a "lousy traitor." Judges of the European Court of Justice not only found the comments were defamatory, but also that Facebook had a responsibility to do something about them.
In most countries, comments like those made about Glawisching-Piesczek - although rude - are protected political speech. However, the EU's laws regarding online privacy and offensive content vary significantly from those in the United States. Decisions like this one bring social media companies in the U.S. under EU standards, giving them a whole new set of rules to follow. The European Court of Justice held that EU law does not preclude courts from ordering tech companies to remove certain content or block access worldwide. If the content is found to be defamatory or otherwise illegal, EU courts can force media platforms to remove it.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the holding a "very troubling precedent," saying it will likely lead to significant challenges for the industry in the future. Unfortunately for Facebook, decisions by the European Court of Justice cannot be appealed.
Meanwhile, in a recent case against Google, the same court held that the EU's strict "right to be forgotten" rules didn't always apply globally. The right to be forgotten allows EU citizens to ask search engines like Google to remove links containing their personal information from search results.
As governments worldwide decide how to address privacy, defamation, and misinformation online, more groundbreaking decisions are likely to come out of the world's highest courts. The question is, will social media platforms be able to keep up?