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Facebook abuse: Top German court rules for lawmaker

February 2, 2022

Germany's top court has sided with a Green Party politician over personal abuse directed at her on Facebook. The court said an earlier decision had failed to account for the rights of a person over their personal image.

Green Party politician Renate Künast
Künast welcomed the decision, calling it a "good day for democracy"Image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's Federal Constitutional Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of former minister Renate Künast in seeking the personal data of social media users to take legal action over online abuse.

The decision means Facebook might now be forced to hand over information to track down and prosecute users whose comments were deemed potentially criminal.

What did the court say?

The Karlsruhe-based court rejected the decisions of two courts in Berlin, which had ruled that only 12 out of the 22 comments were potential crimes.

The judges said the earlier courts had failed to properly balance an individual's rights over their own public image against that of freedom of opinion.

While the bench stressed that freedom of speech — especially the criticism of those in power — should be protected, there must be limits.

In making assessments on freedom of speech, the court said, judges should give greater weight to statements that contribute to the formation of public opinion and less to those spreading emotional sentiments against individuals. The court said the lower court judges had failed to do this.

The court said this was in the public interest: "Because a willingness to participate in state and society can only be expected if those who get involved and are committed publicly are guaranteed adequate protection of their personal rights."

When politically engaged women aren't safe online

The decision means that Künast, who served as Germany's food and agriculture minister from 2003 to 2005, can request the data.

However, Berlin's Court of Appeals will now be asked to make the decision on whether the comments are criminal in nature, which will decide whether Facebook must release the information.

How did the dispute come about?

The legal dispute over the 22 comments, many of a sexist or violent nature and featuring foul language, had caused a nationwide stir and outrage in 2019 and 2020.

The Berlin Regional Court had classified the partly obscene insults as "a hair's breadth on the border of what is still acceptable."

It ruled that certain comments in the posts, including those calling for her rape, did not constitute a "defamation of the complainant and thus were not insults."

The abusive comments followed a Facebook post about a statement made by Künast in 1986 in the Berlin House of Representatives during a debate on the subject of violence against children and pedophilia.

Are you allowed to say anything on the internet?

A Higher Regional Court in the city of Frankfurt later ruled that this was a false quote. However, by this stage, Künast had already been targeted by the series of insults.

Künast on Wednesday welcomed the decision, saying it was a good day for democracy.

"After years of dispute, I am very pleased with the decision of the Federal Constitutional Court," she tweeted.

"This judgment is a piece of legal history in the digital age! So many of you deal with the worst humiliation and abuse every day. This decision is for all of you."

The decision comes days after the social media platform Twitter joined Facebook and Google in taking legal action against Germany's expanded hate-speech law. The social media companies claim the legislation violates users' right to privacy.

rc/sms (AFP, Reuters, dpa, epd)