Case C-18/18 Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek v Facebook as I noted in my short first review of the case, revolves around Article 15 of the E-Commerce Directive. Does Article 15 prohibit the imposition on a hosting provider (Facebook, in this case) of an obligation to remove not only notified illegal content, but also identical and similar content, at a national or worldwide level?
Szpunar AG in his Opinion kicks off with a memorable Erica Albright quote from The Social Network: The internet’s not written in pencil, [Mark], it’s written in ink’.
His Opinion to a large degree concerns statutory interpretation on filtering content, which Daphne Keller has already reviewed succinctly here and which is not the focus of this blog. The jurisdictional issues are what interest me more: the territorial scope of any removal obligation.
Firstly, Szpunar AG matter of factly confirms my reading, against that of most others’, of his Opinion in C-505/17 Google: at 79:
‘in my Opinion in that case I did not exclude the possibility that there might be situations in which the interest of the Union requires the application of the provisions of that directive beyond the territory of the European Union.’
Injunctions (ordering removal) are necessarily based on substantive considerations of national law (in the absence of EU harmonisation of defamation law); which law applies is subject to national, residual conflicts rules (in the absence of EU harmonisation at the applicable law, level, too): at 78. Consequently, a Court’s finding of illegality (because of its defamatory nature) of information posted may well have been different had the case been heard by a court in another Member State. What is however harmonised at the EU level, is the jurisdiction for the civil and commercial damage following from defamation: see e-Date, in particular its centre of interests rule which leads to an all-encompassing, universal’ jurisdiction for the damages resulting from the defamation.
Separate from that is the consideration of the territorial extent of the removal obligation. Here, the AG kicks off his analysis at 88 ff by clearly laying out the limits of existing EU harmonisation: the GDPR and data protection Directive harmonise issues of personal data /privacy: not what claimant relies on. Directive 2000/31 does not regulate the territorial effects of injunctions addressed to information society service providers. Next, it is difficult, in the absence of regulation by the Union with respect to harm to private life and personality rights, to justify the territorial effects of an injunction by relying on the protection of fundamental rights guaranteed in Articles 1, 7 and 8 of the Charter: the scope of the Charter follows the scope of EU law and not vice versa. In the present case, as regards its substance, the applicant’s action is not based on EU law. Finally, Brussels Ia does not regulate the extra-EU effects of injunctions.
In conclusion therefore EU law does not regulate the question of extraterritorial reach in casu.
For the sake of completeness, the AG does offer at 94 ff ‘a few additional observations’ as regards the removal of information disseminated worldwide via a social network platform. At 96 he refers to the CJEU’s judgment in Bolagsupplysningen which might implicitly have acknowledged universal jurisdiction, to conclude at 100 (references omitted)
the court of a Member State may, in theory, adjudicate on the removal worldwide of information disseminated via the internet. However, owing to the differences between, on the one hand, national laws and, on the other, the protection of the private life and personality rights provided for in those laws, and in order to respect the widely recognised fundamental rights, such a court must, rather, adopt an approach of self-limitation. Therefore, in the interest of international comity…, that court should, as far as possible, limit the extraterritorial effects of its junctions concerning harm to private life and personality rights. The implementation of a removal obligation should not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the protection of the injured person. Thus, instead of removing the content, that court might, in an appropriate case, order that access to that information be disabled with the help of geo-blocking.
There are very sound and extensive references to scholarship in the footnotes to the Opinion, including papers on the public /private international law divide and the shifting nature of same (the Brussels Court of Appeal recently in the Facebook case justifiably found jurisdictional grounds in neither public nor private international law, to discipline Facebook Ireland and Facebook Inc for its datr-cookies placed on Belgian users of FB).
I find the AG’s Opinion convincing and complete even in its conciseness. One can analyse the jurisdictional issues until the cows come home. However, in reality reasons of personal indemnification may argue in specific circumstances for universal jurisdiction and ditto reach of injunctive relief. However these bump both into the substantial trade-off which needs to be made between different fundamental rights (interest in having freedom removed v freedom of information), and good old principles of comitas gentium aka comity. That is not unlike the US judicial approach in similar issues.
(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 188.8.131.52, Heading 184.108.40.206.5.