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Global Freedom of Expression

Facebook v. CasaPound

On Appeal Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    April 29, 2020
  • Outcome
    Injunction or Order Granted
  • Case Number
    80961/19
  • Region & Country
    Italy, Europe and Central Asia
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Political Expression
  • Tags
    Hate Speech, Incitement, Facebook

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Court of Rome dismissed Facebook’s appeal against a preliminary injunction ordering the social network to reactivate the account and restore the pages of the Italian neo-fascist party CasaPound. Facebook claimed that violence and racism by CasaPound’s members amounted to an infringement of its Community Standards allowing Facebook to disable CasaPound’s account. CasaPound submitted that Facebook was not entitled to take into account incidents that occurred outside the platform and, in any event, CasaPound’s reference to historical fascism did not automatically imply its adherence to the racist and discriminatory ideas advocated by the latter. The Court held that Italian law did not prohibit neo-fascist associations in themselves, unless they attempt to reconstruct the Fascist Party of WWII. It also held that the provisions in Facebook’s Terms of Use that support Facebook’s withdrawal of service are only lawful so far as they are interpreted and applied in compliance with the principles of freedom of thought and association.

 


Facts

On September 9, 2019, Facebook Ireland (‘Facebook’) deactivated the account page of the far-right political party and organization CasaPound Italia (‘CasaPound’) together with the pages of representatives and supporters of the association without providing any notice or explanation for its decision. Facebook argued that the removal of CasaPound’s pages was legitimate on the grounds that they included content which constituted hate speech and incitement to violence, in violation of Facebook’s Terms of Use. The Court reasoned that Facebook holds a special position and its mission aims to uphold freedom of expression. Further, the Court stated that the deactivation of CasaPound’s page violated its rights as a political party to participate in public debate and “contribute by democratic means to national policy” under art. 49 of the Constitution. The Court of Rome ordered Facebook to immediately reactivate the page of CasaPound Italia at https://www.facebook.com/casapounditalia/ and the personal profile of Davide Di Stefano, as administrator of the page, setting a penalty of € 800.00 for each day of violation.

Against this preliminary injunction, Facebook said it was a private company operating for profit protected by art. 41 of the Constitution. It complained that the order had erroneously attributed a special nature to the contract between the social network and the user, when it was instead an ordinary contract under civil law. In the absence of any legal basis, according to Facebook, it is not possible to attribute public service obligations to private sector players such as the protection of freedom of association and expression. Likewise, Facebook argued that it is not required to ensure special protection to some users such as organizations engaged in political activities by virtue of their role in the political debate. Further,  Facebook complained that the Court had not taken into account the general activity of CasaPound aimed at inciting hate and violence and resembling fascist posturing even outside Facebook.

CasaPound argued that its conduct should be evaluated exclusively within the framework of the contractual relationship and, consequently any evaluation of conduct unrelated to the use of the Facebook service should be precluded. It argued, however, that Facebook’s claims were unfounded and unproven. CasaPound submitted that it proposed an update of historical fascism that exclusively values its social policies, and that it has publicly condemned racial laws. It also recalled that freedom of expression protected by art. 21 of the Italian Constitution provides that CasaPound’s adherence to fascist ideology would be relevant only if the limits provided by criminal provisions were exceeded.

Facebook asked the Court of Rome to dismiss the preliminary injunction.

 


Decision Overview

The main issue for the Court was whether CasaPound had breached Facebook’s contractual terms in circumstances where CasaPound supporters had routinely been involved in incidents of violence and racism.

The Court firstly found that the relationship between Facebook and CasaPound was an ordinary contract under civil law, specifically, an atypical contract in which the operator provides free of charge content-sharing services. In this case, users are required to comply with certain conditions established in the agreement with the social network and, as such, whether or not termination by the service provider is valid must be determined in accordance with the rules of contract law. The Court said that the relationship was subject to the limits ordinarily recognized for private sector players, namely, the general clauses of public order, morality, good faith and the prohibition of abuse of the law, all of which must be interpreted according to constitutional principles.

The Court stressed that these general principles are critical in the execution and interpretation of contracts, as per arts. 1175, 1366 and 1375 of the Italian Civil Code. They are relevant both in terms of identifying contractual obligations and balancing the conflicting interests of the parties and they allow the judge to intervene, even to amend or supplement, the content of the contract. Further, the Court said that, private enterprises cannot limit the exercise of users’ constitutional rights by punishing their exercise under the contract or in the absence of objective justifications pursuant to contract.

The Court went on to say that Facebook’s position was groundless. While Facebook can rely on its economic freedom provided by art. 41 of the Italian Constitution, users can express their ideas and opinions according to art. 21 of the Italian Constitution and CasaPound also enjoys the right to association pursuant to art. 18 of the Italian Constitution. The Court pointed out that the rights to freedom of expression and association are superior in the constitutional hierarchy and that contractual discipline cannot justify the termination of the contract because of the manifestations of thought or allow the exclusion of association. The limits connected to the respect for the freedom of thought and association are general and do not refer to special categories of users, nor do they imply the need for any additional check by Facebook.

According to the Court, it is not possible to attribute to private actors, such as Facebook, contractual powers substantially affecting the freedom of expression and association, so as to exceed the limits that the legal system has imposed by criminal law. Besides, CasaPound cannot be considered an illicit association in the Italian legal system: the Court said that Facebook had unduly terminated the contractual relationship on the basis of an act of legitimate freedom of thought, protected by art. 21 of the Italian Constitution and in breach of the principle of free association  protected by art. 18. The relevant Law no. 645/1952 prohibits reconstitution 0f the fascist party but not neo-fascist associations in themselves except to the extent their activities aim to reconstitute the Fascist Party of WWII. Otherwise there would be an undue limitation of the principle of free expression of thought and free association.

In this way the Court found that the exclusion of CasaPound from Facebook’s platform was unjustified. It  dismissed Facebook’s appeal ordering it to immediately reactivate CasaPound’s page and account and to pay legal fees of 12,000 euros.

 


Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

The case expands freedom of expression in so far as the Court of Rome rejected the complaints of Facebook, thus, confirming reinstatement of the social media accounts. Nonetheless, this decision increases the uncertainty about platforms’ obligations in online content moderation. The horizontal application of fundamental rights is a safeguard against abuse of powers in private relationships – in this case extending responsibility for the protection of expression and association to Facebook. At the same time, it is worth considering that, without a clear legal framework for content moderation, platforms would be exposed to legal uncertainty and the chilling effect. These actors would be encouraged to increase the monitoring activities of online content to mitigate their risk of being held responsible, thus increasingly challenging the system of exemption of liability established by the e-Commerce Directive which is based on the passive role of online intermediaries.

 

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Official Case Documents

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