PARIS — Facebook lost a crucial legal battle Friday as a Paris court ruled the social network can be sued in France over its decision to remove the account of a French user who posted a photo of a famous 19th-century nude painting.
The ruling by the Paris appeals court could set a legal precedent in France, where Facebook has more than 30 million regular users. It can be appealed to France’s highest court.
It means a French court will now be entitled to hear the case of Frederic Durand-Baissas, a 57-year-old Parisian teacher and art lover whose Facebook account was suspended five years ago without prior notice. That was the day he posted a photo of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 “The Origin of the World,” which depicts female genitalia.
He wants his account reactivated and is asking for 20,000 euros ($22,550) in damages — and said he’s “glad” he has been given the chance to get some sort of explanation from the powerful social network.
“This is a case of free speech and censorship on a social network,” Durand-Baissas told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “If (Facebook) can’t see the difference between an artistic masterpiece and a pornographic image, we in France (can).”
Facebook, which has not given an explanation for the suspended account, could not immediately be reached for comment after the ruling.
Its current “Community Standards” page says: “We restrict the display of nudity because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content — particularly because of their cultural background or age.”
It also says, “We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.”
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However, Durand-Baissas’ lawyer said that Facebook has changed its language on this subject in recent years.
Its lawyers had argued that such lawsuits could only be heard by a specific court in California where it has its headquarters, and that French consumer rights law can’t apply to its users in France because its worldwide service is free.
A Paris appeals court dismissed those arguments and upheld a lower court’s decision that ruled French courts can hear cases involving users in France.
The appeals court said the small clause included in Facebook’s terms and conditions requiring any worldwide lawsuits to be heard by the Santa Clara court is “unfair” and excessive. In addition, the judges said the terms and conditions contract signed before creating a Facebook account does fall under consumer rights law in France.
“This is a great satisfaction and a great victory after five years of legal action,” lawyer Stephane Cottineau, who represents the teacher, told The Associated Press. He said it sends a message to all “web giants that they will have now to answer for their possible faults in French courts.”
“On one hand, Facebook shows a total permissiveness regarding violence and ideas conveyed on the social network. And on the other hand, (it) shows an extreme prudishness regarding the body and nudity,” he said.
The French government has lobbied Silicon Valley tech giants to take down violent extremist material, notably after deadly attacks in Paris last year.
Facebook has had a tough week in France.
France’s independent privacy watchdog said Facebook is breaching user privacy by tracking and using their personal data, and set a three-month limit ahead of eventual fines. And the government’s anti-fraud agency issued a formal notice giving the company two months to comply with French data protection laws or risk sanctions. It notably accused Facebook of removing content or information posted by users without consultation.