A German court rejected a temporary injunction against Facebook on Tuesday in a case brought by a Syrian refugee who sued the social networking site for failing to remove faked posts linking him to crimes and militant attacks.
The Wuerzburg district court said in a preliminary ruling that Facebook is neither a "perpetrator nor a participant" in what it said was "undisputable defamation" by Facebook users, but simply acting as a hosting provider that is not responsible for preemptively blocking offensive content under European law.
The posts in dispute featured a picture showing Anas Modamani, a 19-year-old from Damascus, taking a selfie with Chancellor Angela Merkel in September 2015 at a refugee shelter in the Berlin district of Spandau.
Modamani's image was subsequently shared on Facebook on anonymous accounts, alongside posts falsely claiming he was responsible for the Brussels airport bombing of March 2016 and setting on fire a homeless man in December last year by six migrants at an underground station in Berlin.
The court rejected the need for a temporary injunction sought by Modamani to require Facebook to go beyond measures the company had taken to block defamatory images of him for Facebook users in Germany using geo-blocking technology.
In a statement following the decision, Facebook expressed concern for Modamani's predicament but said the court's ruling showed the company acted quickly to block access to defamatory postings, once they had been reported by Modamani's lawyer.
The case has been closely watched as Germany, a frequent critic of Facebook, is preparing legislation to force the social networking website to remove "hate speech" from its web pages within 24 hours or face fines.
After the ruling, Modamani's lawyer in the case, Chan-jo Jun, told a news conference he was disappointed such imagery continued to circulate online and more must be done to force Facebook to delete hate-filled content on its own accord.
"We have to decide whether we want to accept that Facebook can basically do whatever it wants or whether German law, and above all the removal of illegal contents in Germany, will be enforced. If we want that we need new laws," Jun said.
Modamani's complaint maintained that defamatory images based on the selfie posted to Facebook were still viewable online outside of Germany, or by users within Germany using a sophisticated Tor browser.
But the court found that the risk of average German users seeing the illegal content was not sufficiently credible and therefore a temporary injunction was unnecessary at this stage.
The ruling said there remained a legitimate issue over whether it was technically feasible for Facebook to do more to block such images, but this would require testimony by experts.
Tuesday's decision is subject to appeal within one month of the yet-to-be-published written judgment, a court statement said. Jun declined to say whether an appeal was planned, saying the decision remained up to his client.