Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Facebook Wins German Lawsuit Over Refugee Hate-Speech Posts

  • Press laws don’t apply to social network operators, court says
  • Facebook didn’t adopt statements as its own, judges rules

Facebook Inc. won dismissal of a lawsuit involving a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a Syrian refugee that raised questions about the social network’s duty to remove racist comments by its users.

A German court in the city of Wuerzburg rejected an emergency bid by the refugee to force the company to block any post featuring the picture or repeating offensive statements that often accompanied the photograph. The judges said the country’s laws for content providers don’t currently apply to internet platforms like Facebook and lawmakers would need to change the rules to give 19-year-old Anas Modamani the relief he sought.

The picture of Modamani and Merkel has become an emblem of the chancellor’s refugee policies. Modamani’s lawyer had told the court it was posted by numerous users who added libelous statements about his client, including falsely alleging he took part in terror attacks or was responsible for the attempted murder of a homeless person.

"Facebook didn’t adopt the statements and the postings as its own opinion," Presiding Judge Volkmar Seipel said after delivering the ruling. "It’s not Facebook that’s claiming these things when users are uploading the picture."

Modamani’s lawyer, Chan-jo Jun, urged politicians to draft new laws that would give additional protections to victims of hate speech.

"We need to decide whether to allow Facebook to do whatever it wants -- to keep anything online that elicits traffic," Jun said after the ruling. "Lawmakers need to step in."

Difficult Situation

Menlo Park, California-based Facebook said that it understands that "this is a very difficult situation for Mr. Modamani" and stressed that it is quickly blocking any posts "accurately" flagged by Jun.

Hate speech has become an increasingly pressing problem for Facebook globally. But nowhere is the issue more acute than in Germany, where incidents of online hate have soared as the country has absorbed just over one million refugees since the start of 2015. In December 2015, Facebook, Google and Twitter Inc. agreed to remove posts that contain hate speech within 24 hours.

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has said the companies often fail to meet this target and the government is now mulling tougher legislation.

Tuesday’s ruling may not be the end of the case, however.

Fast-Track Ruling

The Modamani decision is partly based on procedural grounds, as the case was filed under emergency procedures. Judge Seipel said that the teenager can refile the complaint under the normal process and the court would look into whether it was feasible for Facebook to search its entire platform for libelous statements or photo montages.

Facebook users made statements that “severely violated" Modamani’s rights and Seipel said it may be asking too much to have the victim alert Facebook about each and every post. If it can be proven that Facebook can find such posts without too much effort, then a court might step in.

"But that requires expert witnesses testifying under normal evidence rules," said Seipel. "I can’t just believe what computer experts say in interviews" in the local press.

Facebook’s lawyers had previously said during court hearings that such a search is impossible, saying it would require a "wonder machine" that doesn’t exist.

The case is: LG Wuerzburg, 11 O 2338/16.

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