EU court rules that social networks can’t be forced to filter user content

16 Feb 2012

The European Court of Justice has ruled that social networks “cannot be obliged” to install a filtering system for all of its users to prevent the “unlawful use of music and audio-visual work.”

The result emerged from a case involving Belgian music management company SABAM and social networking platform Netlog.

SABAM had Netlog summoned before the president of the Court of First Instance of Brussels in 2009, claiming Netlog allows users to make its portfolio of works available through their profiles without consent or without paying a fee. It requested that Netlog should be ordered to stop “unlawfully making available musical or audio-visual works from SABAM’s repertoire” and to pay €1,000 for each day it delays complying with the order.

However, Netlog argued that by granting this injunction, the court would be imposing on Netlog a general obligation to monitor users, which is prohibited by the eCommerce Directive.

The court made a reference for a preliminary ruling to the European Court of Justice as to whether European Union law would prevent a national court from giving an injunction which would force Netlog to install a system to filter user content.

European Court of Justice

The European Court of Justice classified Netlog as a “hosting service provider” within EU law and acknowledged that a filter for all of its content would require “active observation” of all the files stored by users. It agreed this monitoring would be prohibited by law.

The court believes that installing a filtering system would result in “serious infringement to Netlog’s freedom to conduct its business” as it would a complicated and costly measure.

The court also pointed out the wide-ranging impact this law would have on its users, their personal data and their freedom to impart and receive information protected under the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. It notes that the system could allow users to be identified and that it may not distinguish between unlawful content and lawful content.

It also said courts must strike a balance between protecting copyright holders and protecting the users’ rights. It believes that in this case, the injunction would not respect this balance, the right to protect personal data, the freedom to conduct business and the freedom to receive or impart information.