While Facebook netted a win in the high-profile selfie suit filed by a Syrian refugee in Germany, it exposed complaints about the company’s response to lawsuits in that country.
At first, a 2015 snapshot by Anas Modamani with Chancellor Angela Merkel put a human face to the mass migration into Europe as well as Germany’s immigration policy. But later, the photo was attached to inflammatory social media posts that falsely claimed Modamami participated in the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Berlin. In response, Modamami sought an injunction against Facebook in Würzburg, Germany. The judge in the case found that because Facebook had not manipulated the content, which, as The New York Times points out, would have made the company legally responsible for the distribution, there were no grounds for the injunction.
The concerns are more than just how Germany’s strict personal privacy laws are applied to social media companies. They also extend to how Facebook does or does not respond to cases in the country to begin with.
Per Bloomberg News, while Facebook offers a German version of its website used by millions of German users, it doesn’t sprechen sie Deutsch in court. Instead, “the company aggressively relies on procedural tactics to stay out of German courtrooms.” Modamami’s lawyer, Chan-jo Jun, stated that “Facebook routinely failed to reply to emails sent to its European headquarters in Dublin or even its German lawyers,” and that the case’s media attention is what prompted the company to send counsel to Würzburg.
Another example of Facebook’s alleged procedural tactics include a suit filed by a German student in Berlin in which Facebook claimed it required an English translation of the complaint, which would have cost the student around 500 euros ($530).
Facebook is not alone; Google is another American company that has also “tested the patience of German lawyers.” When a group of German publishers first sued the company in 2014, a German law firm appeared in a Berlin court after the complaint was served in the United States. When the same group sued the company again and German counsel for Google refused to accept service, the court was compelled to use a formal, lengthier service process that required translations through a central authority in the United States. To the contrary, a spokesperson for Google in Germany stated that when the company is sued in Germany, it follows “standard German civil process,” and that it also communicates with users in the local language and provides templates in that language to raise any concern.
Per Bloomberg, Christoph Thole, a professor of civil procedure at Cologne University, affirmed that none of these tactics are illegal; the U.S. companies are simply invoking rules on international judicial proceedings — a point that Facebook’s counsel in Würzburg raises. And yet, says Thole, insisting on these rights can be part of counsel’s “bag of tricks,” particularly when a lot is at stake.
While Facebook’s Italian skills are unknown, it understood perfectly a Milan court order to suspend its location-sharing feature, Nearby Places, or face a fine of $5,000 euros a day. The Italian software developer Business Competence filed suit against Facebook, claiming it had copied its own app, Faround, which it had invested half a million euros in, just months after it first appeared in Facebook’s app store in 2012. Once Facebook launched Nearby Places, Business Competence claims Faround’s downloads plummeted. Facebook is appealing the case.