Starting today, Facebook users may feel a little less safe posting anonymously. The Court of the Hague in The Netherlands ruled that Meta Ireland must unmask an anonymous user accused of defaming the claimant, a male Facebook user who allegedly manipulated and made secret recordings of women he dated.
The anonymous Facebook user posted the allegedly defamatory statements in at least two private Facebook groups dedicated to discussing dating experiences. The claimant could not gain access but was shown screenshots from the groups, one with about 2,600 members and one with around 61,000 members. The claimant argued that his reputation had suffered from the repeated postings that included photos of the man and alleged screenshots of his texts.
The claimant tried to get Meta to remove the posts, but Meta responded with an email saying that it would not do so because "it is not clear to us that the content you reported is unlawful as defamation."
At that point, Meta suggested that the man contact the anonymous user directly to resolve the matter, triggering the lawsuit against Meta. Initially, the claimant asked the court to order Meta to delete the posts, identify the anonymous user, and flag any posts in other private Facebook groups that could defame the claimant.
While arguing the case, Meta had defended the anonymous user's right to freedom of expression, but the court decided that the claimant—whose name is redacted in court documents—deserved an opportunity to challenge the allegedly defamatory statements.
Partly for that reason, the court ordered Meta to provide "basic subscriber information" on the anonymous user, including their username, as well as any names, email addresses, or phone numbers associated with their Facebook account. The court did not order Meta to remove the posts or flag any others that may have been shared in private groups, though.
Meta has already agreed to comply with the order, the court's ruling said. However, if Meta fails to provide the Facebook user's identifying information, the social media company risks a penalty of approximately $1,200 daily. The maximum fine that Meta could face is less than $130,000.
A legal representative for the claimant and Meta could not immediately be reached for comment.
Identifying anonymous posters
Facebook allows users to post anonymously in private groups when admins allow it. The court order said it was common for private Facebook groups to allow anonymous posting in forums where primarily women discuss dangerous or negative dating experiences with men.
When a Facebook user posts anonymously, it has never truly been anonymous, of course. Facebook's policy stipulates that "your name and profile picture will still be visible to the group’s admins and moderators, as well as to Facebook, in order to help keep groups safe and in compliance with our Community Standards."
There's an entire branch of law where content removal attorneys fight back against anonymous posters. Sometimes attorneys prod platforms to unmask the user, commonly when making copyright claims, and other times they rely on tactics to unmask users themselves, like IP tracing or reverse image searches. This case, however, could be considered a "landmark decision" that "signals a shift in the balance between user privacy and accountability on social media platforms," StackDiary reported.
Meta's defense of the anonymous user's right to free speech failed, the court said, because freedom of speech is not unlimited.
"Someone who, without evidence, repeatedly makes serious and clearly traceable accusations, must take into account, partly in the light of the conditions applied by Facebook, that he or she may be confronted with a measure whereby his or her anonymity is lifted," the court order said.
Although the key concern for The Court in the Hague appeared to be that the statements posted anonymously were plausibly defamatory, the order also noted that the content would not have to necessarily be unlawful for Facebook to be ordered to identify the user posting it.
"According to settled case law, under certain circumstances Meta has an obligation to provide identifying data, even if the content of the relevant messages is not unmistakably unlawful," the court order said.