Facebook Doesn’t Understand German, at Least Not in Court

March 7, 2017, 4:17 PM

By Karin Matussek, Bloomberg News

A German lawsuit over a photo showing a Syrian refugee with Chancellor Angela Merkel has putFacebook Inc.’s hate-speech policies under scrutiny. But the high-profile case has also shed light on complaints that the company tries to avoid and delay lawsuits in the country.

Chan-jo Jun, a lawyer for the Syrian refugee suing in Wuerzburg to stop Facebook using the picture, is one of a number of attorneys that says the company aggressively relies on procedural tactics to stay out of German courtrooms. He said Facebook routinely failed to reply to emails sent to its European headquarters in Dublin or even its German lawyers.

“It was only because of the media attention in this case that Facebook finally decided to send lawyers to Wuerzburg,” Jun said of the case, where a verdict is scheduled for Tuesday. “They wanted to get access to the files.”

The jurisdictional fights are taking place against a backdrop of wider efforts to crack down on hate speech in Germany, where offensive online posts soared as the country took in more than one million refugees since the start of 2015. The Wuerzburg suit was brought by 19-year-old Anas Modamani after a selfie he took with Merkel was posted on numerous Facebook pages with libelous statements, including claims he took part in terror attacks. Modamani wants Facebook to block any future postings of the picture.

Hate Speech

In December 2015, Facebook, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Twitter Inc. agreed to remove posts that contain hate speech within 24 hours. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has said the companies often fail to meet this target and lawmakers are pondering tougher legislation. State justice ministers are pressing to include rules requiring Internet companies to allow service of suits at a German address.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive officer, said in a speech in Berlin last year his company needs to do more to combat hate speech.

“I think we will continue needing to do a better and better job,” he said.

One of the most common complaints from Jun and other lawyers involves attempts to notify Facebook about the lawsuit, known as service of process. Facebook’s European headquarters is in Ireland and the German court needs to send lawsuits there unless Facebook allows it to be sent to another address in Germany.

News Coverage

If the Wuerzburg court had to rely solely on sending the complaint to Ireland, the case could have been delayed for a year, a judge said at ahearinglast month. Two Hamburg lawyers contacted the court on behalf of Facebook only after the lawsuit garnered widespread news coverage.

“Until this day, we didn’t get any confirmation our attempt to serve the suit in Ireland went anywhere,” Presiding Judge Volkmar Seipel said at the hearing. “I’m not sure we would have been able to make service in Ireland happen this year at all.”

Robert Ardelt, a German spokesman for Facebook, declined to comment.

Lawyers like Jun say one way for Facebook to show it’s willing to improve would be to make German lawsuits easier by allowing courts to send complaints to their local units.

But even if the notification obstacle is overcome, lawyers may confront additional hurdles.

Local Language

In a Berlin case filed by a student whose account was shut without explanation, Facebook told the court it doesn’t speak German and needed an English-language text. Translating the complaint would have cost 500 euros ($530), a lot for a student, the plaintiff’s lawyer Franz Wegener says.

“It’s hardly credible that Facebook, which has millions of German users and offers a German website with terms and service communication in German, isn’t able to read court filings in that language,” Wegener says.

Facebook isn’t the only U.S. company that has tested the patience of German lawyers.

In 2014, Google was sued by a group of German publishers over snippets the search engine uses from their products. After the complaint was served in the U.S., German law firm Hengeler Mueller appeared for the search engine in a Berlin court.

In a second suit filed a year later over the same issue, the court asked Hengeler Mueller to accept service. The lawyers declined, so the court had to use the formal service process that requires translations via a central authority in the U.S. and takes more time. Ultimately, the same Hengeler lawyers appeared in that case, too.

Robert Heine, an attorney at Berlin law firm Raue who works for the plaintiffs in both cases, says in-house lawyers for Google’s German unit regularly appear in court for the U.S. company. That shows it’s all one operation and it should be possible to serve suits to the local unit here, he says.

Jun, however, said that Google has done a better job handling complaints from consumers and ordinary citizens, as opposed to the corporate litigation like the two Berlin cases.

Civil Process

Kay Oberbeck, a spokesman for the Google in Germany, said that the Mountain View, California-based company follows the “standard German civil process” when sued in the country.

“We communicate with our users in their local language and we provide templates in their local language in case users want to address any concerns,” he said.

None of the tactics are illegal, U.S. companies are simply invoking rules on international judicial proceedings, saysChristoph Thole, a professor of civil procedure at Cologne University. The rules aim to protect defendants sued in another country.

Bag of Tricks

“But insisting on these rights is sometimes also part of a lawyer’s bag of tricks,” Thole says. “If a lot is at stake, you try to make it as troublesome as possible for the other side.”

Whether Facebook can claim it doesn’t understand German isn’t entirely clear under European Union rules, according to Thole. If a company is active in Germany, that suggests it understands the local language. “That issue can’t hinge on whether Mark Zuckerberg speaks German,” he says.

At the February hearing in Wuerzburg, Martin Munz, a lawyer for Facebook, defended his client’s insistence on getting translations.

“Facebook is only doing what Siemens AG would do if it was served a suit in Basque,” Munz said. “There’s probably someone somewhere at Siemens who understands Basque, but the company has a right to get the complaint in German.”

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