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Can Google+ users be held liable for posting web links?

An Austrian court is to decide whether Google+ users can be held liable for posting web links to critical comments. The legal question revolves around whether users endorse the content on the external website.

Can Google+ users be held liable for posting web links? ©-ferkelraggae-Fotolia-Fotolia_31081868_XS

Can Google+ users be held liable for posting web links? ©-ferkelraggae-Fotolia-Fotolia_31081868_XS

Posting web links on Google+

An Austrian court is to decide whether users can be held liable for posting web links on Google+ to critical comments.

In the case before the court, a Google+ user had posted a web link to content criticising a bank. The user also posted the following message “Bank vs. end user: €150,000 damages from a small citizen – and the bank gets away with it?”

The post was referring to a legal challenge which the bank had brought against the user’s sister’s boyfriend.

The bank took the view that the post went too far and that there was a risk of damage to the bank’s reputation. As a result, the bank required the Google+ user to delete the post in a cease and desist claim worth €18,500.

In Germany there is great uncertainty as to the liability for posting web links to foreign content.

Liability for endorsing foreign content

The first thing to note is that it is highly likely that a user will be found liable for posting web links to foreign content if the user “endorses” the content. It is not clearly defined when an internet user endorses content. However, liability does arise in the following examples:

  • Noticeable agreement with the linked content
  • When the linked content serves to substitute own content
  • When the web link is surrounded by corresponding approving comments.

Similar court decision concerning Twitter

The district court Frankfurt am Main held in a similar case that statements made on the social network Twitter are to be treated in the same way as all other internet publications.

Users are therefore liable for all unlawful content actively posted and endorsed by comments on their Twitter accounts. In this case, the Twitter user was held liable after posting unlawful content accompanied by the comment “very interesting” (case ref: 3-08 O 46/10).

Federal Court of Justice

Germany’s Federal Court of Justice has also made its view known on the topic. It ruled that a person can be held liable for the distribution of unlawful content, if the person fails to distance themselves from the statements (30.01.1996, NJW 96, 1131 et seq.).

Freedom of speech

By analogy to the above two court views, one could argue that the Google+ user should also be held liable for endorsing the critical content. However, the right to freely express a critical opinion should not be unduly restricted. Therefore, in this case, there is a balance to be drawn based on the individual circumstances.

Caution with disclaimers

To avoid liability, many people post general disclaimers for third party content. However, general disclaimers which broadly exclude liability are legally invalid. Liability for posting unlawful third party content can only be excluded if the person posting the web link expressly distances themselves from the content.

Conclusion

Social network users should remember that posting web links can lead to liability if it is clear from the context that the content is being endorsed. Therefore users should exercise caution.

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Christian Solmecke is a partner at the law firm WILDE BEUGER SOLMECKE. He is the author of numerous legal publications in the area of internet and IT law. He is also an associate lecturer for social media law at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

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