Facebook Jurisdiction Ruling to Affect Large Internet Companies in France, Lawyer Says

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By Rick Mitchell

March 6 — A Paris court's recent finding that it is competent to judge a French user's free speech complaint against Facebook Inc. will force social networks and other large Internet companies operating in France to revise their terms-of-use contracts, a French attorney said.

In the March 5 ruling, the Paris Court of First Instance rejected Facebook's challenge to its jurisdiction, and it will now hear the Facebook user's argument that the social network violated his free speech rights by closing his account, Stéphane Cottineau, the plaintiff's attorney told Bloomberg BNA March 6.

The user had posted a link to a news article about a famous 19th century nude painting, including a photograph. Facebook's terms of use bar posting content that shows nudity and stipulate U.S. court jurisdiction in disputes.

However, Cottineau said, the court in this case “ruled that clauses in Facebook's terms of use attributing competence to U.S. courts were abusive, and illegal under French law.”

‘Goes Beyond Facebook.'

A California-based Facebook spokesman told Bloomberg BNA March 5, “Our team is currently reviewing the court's decision.”

Cottineau said the Paris court found Facebook's contractual terms violate language in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and in France's consumer protection law.

He said the decision applies to all of Facebook's 22 million users in France, but because it was by a Paris court, “this is really a ruling that establishes jurisprudence, and that goes beyond Facebook.”

“It will affect all the other social networks, all the Internet giants, and all those who do business with individuals on the Internet,” Cottineau said. “They are going to have to revise the clauses in their terms and conditions of sale.”

User Seeking 20,000 Euros 

In the case, Facebook suspended the account of a Paris schoolteacher in 2011 after he posted a link to a news article about the 19th century painting by Gustave Courbet, “Lorigine du monde,” or the Origin of the World, and which included a photograph of the painting.

The painting, which is prominently displayed in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, depicts a close-up view of a woman's genitalia.

Cottineau said Facebook France didn't respond to the user's e-mail messages protesting the suspension of his account, which had about 800 friends.

He said the user seeks 20,000 euros ($21,893) in damages plus interest, for what Cottineau called a “act of blind censorship of a work of art” that violates French law and the EU Human Rights Convention. “This is not pornography,” he added.

Facebook users must accept conditions in the company's terms of use contract, which among other things state that “You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” The terms also require that disputes with Facebook be resolved in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California or a state court within San Mateo County, Calif.

But Cottineau said the Paris court held those terms violated France's consumer code, and the court will now hear the plaintiff's main arguments.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rick Mitchell in Paris at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael O. Loatman at mloatman@bna.com