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European judges can now force Facebook to remove content around the world

The European Union’s most powerful court has ruled that judges in Europe have the right to force Facebook to identify and remove illegal content around the world.

Under the terms of the ruling, social media firms will be required by law to find and delete material if it is “identical” or “equivalent” to content which has already been deemed illegal in court.

The move is intended to crack down on the spread of hateful content that is adapted by users worldwide into new material with the same message.

But campaigners have warned for years that such a move would give Facebook, Twitter and YouTube too much power, and that the tech giants are not equipped to decide what counts as “equivalent” material.

When the EU first revealed the proposed rules in 2017, the news sparked the ire of free speech activists. Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, warned at the time that the plans would inevitably lead to automated takedowns.

“Mistakes will inevitably be made – by removing the wrong content and by missing extremist material,” he warned. “Given the global reach of these companies, automated takedowns will have a wide-reaching effect on the content we see.”

It is feared that the ruling may also inspire other countries to pursue similar policies in bad faith. Thomas Hughes, executive director of ARTICLE 19, said the ruling will “set a dangerous precedent where the courts of one country can control what Internet users in another country can see. This could be open to abuse, particularly by regimes with weak human rights records.”

In a statement, the ECJ said: “EU law does not preclude a host provider like Facebook from being ordered to remove identical and, in certain circumstances, equivalent comments previously declared to be illegal.

“In addition, EU law does not preclude such an injunction from producing effects worldwide, within the framework of the relevant international law.”

Responding to the ruling, a spokesperson for Facebook said: “In order to get this right national courts will have to set out very clear definitions on what ‘identical’ and ‘equivalent’ means in practice. We hope the courts take a proportionate and measured approach, to avoid having a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”