Top German Court Says Facebook Must Inform Users About Deleting Their Posts Or Suspending Their Account, Explain Why, And Allow Them To Respond
from the hating-the-hate-speech-hate dept
We’ve just written about Germany’s constitutional court grappling with the issue of whether government users of zero-days for surveillance have a responsibility to report the flaws they use to the relevant developers. Another senior court in the country has been pondering an even thornier question that is occupying judges and lawmakers around the world: how should social media police so-called “hate speech” on their services in a way that respects fundamental rights on all sides?
Germany’s Federal Court of Justice issued its judgment regarding two similar cases (pointed out by Matthias C. Kettemann on Twitter). Both involved posts that Facebook removed because it said they went against the social network’s community standards governing hate speech. In addition, Facebook temporarily blocked the accounts of the users who wrote the posts. When the lower German courts refused to overturn Facebook’s moves completely, the users appealed to the Federal Court of Justice, which not only ordered Facebook to reactivate the two accounts, but also told it to refrain from blocking the re-posting of the deleted comments. The court ruled that Facebook’s rules governing the removal of posts and the blocking of user accounts were “invalid”, because “they unreasonably disadvantage the users of the network contrary to the requirements of good faith.” The court went on to explain its reasoning (translation by DeepL of original in German):
In this case, the conflicting fundamental rights of the parties — on the side of the users the freedom of expression from [Article 5 (1) sentence 1 of Germany’s Basic Law], on the side of the defendant [Facebook] above all the freedom to exercise a profession from [Article 12 (1) sentence 1 of Germany’s Basic Law] — must be considered and balanced according to the principle of practical concordance in such a way that they become as effective as possible for all parties. This balancing shows that the defendant is in principle entitled to require the users of its network to comply with certain communication standards that go beyond the requirements of criminal law (e.g. insult, defamation or incitement of the people). It may reserve the right to remove posts and block the user account concerned in the event of a breach of the communication standards. However, in order to strike a balance between the conflicting fundamental rights in a manner that is in line with the interests of the parties, and thus to maintain reasonableness within the meaning of [Section 307 (1) sentence 1 of the Civil Code of Germany], it is necessary that the defendant undertakes in its terms and conditions to inform the user concerned about the removal of a post at least subsequently and about an intended blocking of his or her user account in advance, to inform him or her of the reason for this and to grant him or her an opportunity to respond, followed by a new decision.
Germany’s Federal Court of Justice is trying to balance two conflicting rights — freedom of speech, and freedom to exercise a profession. Its solution is to require companies like Facebook to inform users about the removal of a post — at least retrospectively — to tell them in advance about the blocking of an account, explain why, and to allow users to respond so that the decision can be reconsidered. That’s a new, general approach that can be applied to a wide range of online services. However, as Matthias C. Kettemann pointed out on Twitter, it leaves important questions unanswered, including the issue of spam accounts, and of account suspensions, rather than deletions. Given their importance, we can probably expect future judgments to tackle these points in due course.