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Facebook nude art case to be tried in France

February 12, 2016

A French court will hear from a teacher suing Facebook after the social network suspended his account when he posted a picture of a 19th-century nude artwork. The ruling could open US Internet firms to foreign lawsuits.

Facebook Frankreich
Image: Getty Images/AFP/L. Venance

On Friday, a Paris appeals court upheld a lower court's ruling, clearing the way for Facebook to be sued in France. At the heart of the case is Frederic Durand-Baissas, a French teacher and art lover whose Facebook account was suspended after he posted a picture of a nude painting.

The disputed painting is Gustave Courbet's 1866 "The Origin of the World," which depicts a close-up view of a woman's genitals.

"This is a case of free speech and censorship on a social network," Durand-Baissas told AP news agency in a phone interview. "If [Facebook] can't see the difference between an artistic masterpiece and a pornographic image, we in France [can]."

Durand-Baissas is asking for his account to be reactivated and wants 20,000 euros ($22,550) in damages. He said he's "glad" he has been given the chance to get some sort of explanation from the social network.

Facebook's current "Community Standards," which were not in effect when Durand-Baissas' account was suspended, allow for "photographs of paintings, sculptures and other art that depicts nude figures."

"This case dates back more than five years, and Facebook has evolved considerably since then," spokeswoman Christine Chen said in an emailed statement, AP reported. "While we are disappointed by today's ruling on jurisdiction, we remain confident that the court will find the underlying case itself to be without merit."

'Abusive' terms of agreement

So far, the case has not hinged on Facebook's nudity policy, but rather on international jurisdiction. Lawyers for the social media site argued that under its terms of service, lawsuits of this nature could only be heard in a specific Californian court where Facebook is headquartered. They also said the contract with the user was "not a consumer contract because Facebook's service was free."

But a French judge dismissed those arguments in a 2015 ruling: "If the proposed service was free to the user, Facebook was generating significant profits from the business, including via paid applications, advertising and other resources."

The court also called the clause in Facebook's terms of agreement - which call for a California court to hear disputes - "unfair" and "abusive."

"This decision is a sovereign act on the part of the French courts, which by this ruling signifies to Facebook - but also to all the Internet giants - that from now on they will have to respect French law," said Stephane Cottineau, who represented Durand-Baissas.

The ruling could now potentially open up other lawsuits against Facebook outside the United States.

rs/sms (AP, AFP, Reuters)