Global Freedom of Expression

Der Dritte Weg v. Facebook Ireland Ltd.

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    May 22, 2019
  • Outcome
    Decision - Procedural Outcome, Affirmed in Part, Reversed in Part, Decision Outcome (Disposition/Ruling), Injunction or Order Denied/Vacated, Injunction or Order Granted
  • Case Number
    1 BvQ 42/19
  • Region & Country
    Germany, Europe and Central Asia
  • Judicial Body
    Constitutional Court
  • Type of Law
    Civil Law, Criminal Law, Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Content Moderation, Political Expression
  • Tags
    Facebook, Elections, Filtering and Blocking, NetzDG

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Federal Constitutional Court of Germany issued a preliminary injunction ordering Facebook Ireland Ltd. to restore access to a suspended user account on May 22, 2019. The injunction was sought by a political party shortly before the elections to the European Parliament. The party was blocked by Facebook from using its account on the basis of an article, shared by the party, which Facebook found to be an infringement of its terms of use and a possible infringement of criminal law. After two applications to the civil courts, which were not successful, the applicant alleged a violation of its basic rights before the Federal Constitutional Court. The Court held that it would be essential to the party to have access to its Facebook page to disseminate its political opinions and enter into discussion with its users, until the elections were carried out. Facebook had a key position within the social networks in Germany and therefore played an important role in election campaigns. The Court concluded that the consequences that would arise if the applicant were denied access to its Facebook page but the respondent in the principal proceedings was obliged to reopen access clearly outweighed the consequences that would arise if the respondent was temporarily obliged to restore access but in the principal proceedings it would be found that restricting access and disabling the profile were lawful.


The applicant “Der Dritte Weg” (The Third Path) is a small right-wing political party in Germany. On January 21, 2019, the party shared a link on its Facebook page to an article from its website. This article referred to people living in Zwickau’s neighbourhood Neuplanitz as “left behind in social and financial terms” and stated that “[w]hile more and more [culturally strange and dissimilar] foreign asylum seekers, who sometimes express their gratitude by violence and criminal offences, were accommodated in the apartments in the prefabricated high-rises, many Germans in this neighbourhood do not have any prospects […].” [Abstract of the German Federal Constitutional Court’s Order of 22 May 2019, 1 BvQ 42/19, p. 1]

Shortly after sharing this article, Facebook informed the applicant that the article would constitute hate speech and violate Facebook’s community standards. Therefore, the visibility of the article was restricted and the applicant’s ability to publish content was disabled for 30 days. Following an objection by Der Dritte Weg based on its freedom of expression, Facebook disabled the applicant’s account on January 30, 2019 and the the account and its content were no longer available.

After a written warning, Der Dritte Weg applied to the Regional Court Frankenthal (Pfalz) for a preliminary injunction: firstly, to oblige Facebook to grant the party access to its Facebook profile and, secondly, to unlock or restore and condone its posted article. The applicant argued that Facebook was not entitled to disable or delete the article on the ground of its general terms and conditions, because the deleted article did not fall under the options of sanctions provided in the contract. Moreover, Facebook would be bound by the basic rights and, as it had a monopoly position, it had to observe the indirect horizontal effect of basic rights. Therefore, Der Dritte Weg claimed a violation of its right to freedom of expression under Art. 5 German Basic Law as well as its right to equal opportunities of parties pursuant to Art. 21, 3 in connection with Art. 38 (1) German Basic Law. It said that the disabling of its Facebook page would lead to a distortion of opportunities in the prospect of the upcoming European Parliament Elections campaign.

On March 18, 2019, the court rejected the applicant’s motion, because the expression would be unlawful under the Network Enforcement Act (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, NetzDG). The respondent was therefore obliged to take measures such as disabling or deleting the applicant’s page pursuant to § 1 (3) NetzDG in connection with § 130 German Criminal Code, which punishes group incitement. The court held that the platform provider had enough reason to assess a violation of § 130 Criminal Code, as the group of “asylum seekers” is a section of the population within the meaning of § 130 Criminal Code. By calling asylum seekers “culturally strange and dissimilar” and combining this expression with “express their gratitude by violence and criminal offences” the applicant attacked this section of the population in its human dignity and made it maliciously contemptible. Thus, the respondent was likely to be liable under § 4 NetzDG and the disabling and deletion of the article was proportionate. According to the court, the applicant had no right to use Facebook’s services again, as there would be no obligation for Facebook to engage in a (new) user contract with the applicant. Despite the fact that Facebook would play an important role in forming opinions, the applicant could use other ways to express its opinion, such as websites, e-mail or other social networks. The court concluded that even if Facebook was subject to a substantial indirect horizontal effect of the basic rights and those had to be considered when assessing the general terms and conditions, Facebook was allowed to delete the article. Despite the fact that Der Dritte Weg is a political party, the basic rights were not guaranteed without restrictions and it had to obey the personality rights of other users (Art. 1 and 2 German Basic Law) or the virtual domestic authority of the service provider (Art. 14 German Basic Law).

On April 17, 2019, the Pfälzisches Higher Regional Court Zweibrücken rejected an immediate appeal.

Before the Federal Constitutional Court, the applicant applied for a preliminary injunction to suspend the lower courts’ decisions and pursue its application to oblige Facebook to grant the party access to its Facebook profile and to unlock or restore and condone its posted article. Der Dritte Weg alleged that its basic rights under Art. 5 (1), Art. 21 (1) in connection with Art. 3, Art. 2 (1), Art. 38 (1) and Art. 19 (4) German Basic Law were violated.

Decision Overview

On May 22, 2019, the Second Chamber of the First Senate decided in a per curiam decision to issue a preliminary injunction ordering Facebook Ireland Ltd. to grant the applicant access to its Facebook profile “Der III. Weg” until the 2019 Elections to the European Parliament were officially concluded.

First, the Court set forth the requirements for a preliminary injunction pursuant to § 32 of the Act on the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgerichtsgesetz, BVerfGG). It stated that “the reasons put forward for the unconstitutionality of a challenged measure are generally not taken into consideration, unless the principal proceedings are inadmissible from the outset or manifestly unfounded. […] If the outcome of the principal proceedings is open, the Federal Constitutional Court weighs the disadvantages that would arise if a preliminary injunction were not issued but the constitutional complaint were successful in the principal proceedings against the disadvantages that would arise if the preliminary  injunction were issued but the constitutional complaint were to be unsuccessful in the principal proceedings.” [Abstract of the German Federal Constitutional Court’s Order of 22 May 2019, 1 BvQ 42/19, p. 1]

The Court held in accordance with well-established case-law that the basic rights, especially the principle of equality under Art. 3 (1) German Basic Law, can establish an indirect horizontal effect under specific constellations in a lawsuit between two private parties. In the case at hand, the indirect horizontal effect could govern and limit the extent of the civil legal powers of a social network such as Facebook, which has a significant market power in Germany. If and under which requirements this applies to the provider of a social network would be dependent “on the degree of their dominant position on the market, the orientation of the platform, the degree of dependency on that platform and the affected interests of the platform operator and other third parties”. [para. 15] However, the exact determination had not yet been decided by the civil courts, nor the constitutional courts. The Court concluded that these were difficult legal questions that it could not decide in the preliminary review and it needed to weigh the disadvantages of a preliminary injunction, which it decided in favor of the applicant.

The consequences that would occur if Der Dritte Weg were denied the use of Facebook’s network, but Facebook was later obliged to restore the access to its platform, outweighed the consequences that would occur if Facebook was temporarily obliged to restore the access, but it later turns out that the refusal of access was lawful. This would apply for the period until the Elections to the European Parliament were carried out. The Court reasoned that “[t]he exclusion from using the respondent’s services, which, according to the respondent’s advertising, are used by more than 30 million people in Germany every month, denies the applicant an essential opportunity to promote its political messages.” [Abstract of the German Federal Constitutional Court’s Order of 22 May 2019, 1 BvQ 42/19, p.2] Facebook’s social network creates a forum for mutual exchange and expression of opinion, which is of particular importance for Der Dritte Weg for the dissemination of political programs and ideas. The Court found that if it did not issue the preliminary ruling, the applicant would be denied an essential facility to disseminate its political ideas and enter into discussion with its users.

The opposing interests of the respondent carried less weight with the Court: Facebook had only to continue to perform the freely entered-into user agreement. In particular, the respondent did not have to bear significant costs. The issuance of the preliminary ruling does not oblige the respondent to permit on its platform content, which is unlawful or does not comply with its terms of use. The Court clarified that Facebook’s right and obligation to monitor the compliance of content with its terms of use, criminal law and the rights of third parties and the right to delete such content in the case of its noncompliance, remained unaffected.

The applicant’s second application to oblige Facebook to unlock, restore or condone the posted article was rejected by the Court. It held that the applicant had not sufficiently proved that blocking the article caused it severe detriment. The applicant could publish new articles on the social network with due regard to criminal law, the terms of use of Facebook and conflicting rights of third parties.

Decision Direction

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

Expands Expression

The decision, issued in a preliminary review, prioritizes the right of political parties in the context of public elections to access key social media platforms such as Facebook to ensure their freedom to express their political opinions and agenda. The decision reflects that the Court rates the expression of political opinions and the political discussion in relevant social networks as being crucial to the formation of intention during political elections. However, the decision could not resolve the dichotomy between granting a party access to Facebook’s platform and the limits imposed on the platform provider to ensure that content complies with criminal law, rights of third persons, its terms of use and its duties under the Network Enforcement Act.

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.

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