Facebook told a German court that it can't monitor all of its customers' posts for racist language in a dispute over whether the company has to block a photo showing chancellor Angela Merkel and a refugee that has been misused in several hate-speech postings.
"There are billions of postings each day," said Martin Munz, a Facebook lawyer. "You want us to employ a sort of wonder machine to detect each misuse. Such a machine doesn't exist."
Facebook was sued by Syrian refugee Anas Modamani, 19, who became famous after he took a picture of himself with Merkel. The photo later became an emblem of her refugee policies. Modamani appeared in a Wuerzburg court on Monday next to his attorney to argue Facebook must make sure the picture won't be misused again by its users.
Modamani's lawyer Chan-jo Jun told the court the picture was posted on timelines of numerous users who added libelous statements about his client, including falsely alleging he took part in terror attacks. The suit centers on a photomontage that claimed Modamani was responsible for the attempted murder of a homeless person. A ruling was scheduled for March 7.
Following the presidential election in November, Facebook came under pressure to do more to address the spread of articles with false information. CEO Mark Zuckerberg at first downplayed the company's responsibility, before reversing himself and creating new policies to tackle the problem.
Lawyers for Facebook argued that the social network offers a tool that allows users to notify the company to remove illicit content.
While Facebook initially removed a post that was flagged as abusive, it didn't do so with all pictures that were notified, Jun told the court. The company didn't take any action to prevent the photo from being posted again or to detect other users who had shared or liked it, he said. The photo wasn't actually deleted but could be retrieved in other parts of the world, he said. Jun also rejected the argument that there are just too many posts to keep track of.
"Volkswagen also can't just say: 'Well, sorry we build too many cars we can't really make sure they're all safe,"' Jun said. "If it's about breasts or child pornography, Facebook is very well able to detect all pictures."
The suit comes while European Union regulators and the German government are upping pressure on Facebook and other social networks to curb the spread of malicious posts. Merkel's government is seeking legislation that would require Facebook and its peers to respond to complaints and delete such content within 24 hours or face fines.
Facebook rejected a suggestion by the court to settle by paying some damages but said it will consider the judges' second settlement proposal to block the picture Europe-wide.
"This case raises a lot of complicated legal issues, so we need some time to deliberate," Presiding Judge Volkmar Seipel said. "We also have the disadvantage that none of us three judges hearing this suit is on Facebook."