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Court tells Facebook: Stop deleting 'offensive' comment

Facebook's move to block a user and cut a comment from that account has been challenged by a German court.

Video: Facebook suffers legal setback in Germany, loses privacy case

A Berlin court has ordered Facebook not to block a user and not to delete a comment made by that user, even though it breached the social network's community standards.

The order appears to be the first such injunction in Germany, which has spent the past few years trying to get platforms such as Facebook to be more proactive in removing hate speech.

This is a temporary injunction of the sort that German courts grant after having heard only one side of the argument. For that reason, the Berlin district court that issued it is refusing to comment on the case for now.

Germany has long had laws against hate speech, and last year a new law called the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) came into effect, threatening social networks with fines of up to €50m ($61.5m) if they don't quickly remove posts containing such language.

Facebook fought the law in its draft stage but lost, and has expanded its team of moderators in the country to ensure that it can react swiftly enough to illegal posts.

The comment in question was placed by Gabor B under a Basler Zeitung article that referenced anti-immigrant statements by Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister.

See also: Information security policy

"The Germans are becoming ever more stupid," Gabor B's comment, posted in January, read. "No wonder, since they are every day littered with fake news from the left-wing Systemmedien about 'skilled workers', declining unemployment rates or Trump."

Systemmedien can be inelegantly translated as 'system media'. The phrase carries echoes of the term Systempresse, or 'system press', that was used by the Nazis before they came to power.

When Facebook removed his comment and hit him with a 30-day account suspension, Gabor B retained conservative Hamburg lawyer Joachim Steinhöfel, who is well known for taking on free-expression cases and is running something of a crusade against what he sees as Facebook's overenthusiastic application of the NetzDG. He maintains a web page called the Facebook Wall of Shame.

Steinhöfel sent a cease-and-desist letter to Facebook demanding the unblocking of Gabor B's profile and the reinstatement of the comment on the Basler Zeitung article.

He says Facebook unblocked the account, but decided that the comment did violate its community standards, and refused to undelete it.

In its injunction, issued Thursday morning, the Berlin district court did not explain its reasoning. However, Steinhöfel argued that the court must have established the comment was within the legal limits of free speech, and that Gabor B was entitled to see the comment stay online.

The preliminary injunction, which can be appealed, does not force Facebook to reinstate the comment, which remains offline at this point. However, it does stop Facebook from deleting the comment again, if Gabor B chooses to repost it.

"This case is very important because it's the first time that users have the opportunity to fight back. So far they were helpless victims of random erasures of content," Steinhöfel told ZDNet.

"It is potentially the counter-medicine to block the overreach of the Network Enforcement Act."

Facebook declined to comment on the case.

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