A Look at Twitter’s First Use of Local Censorship

Tuesday, October 23, 2012, by Neil Barnes

For the first time ever, Twitter has enforced its local censorship policy which came into effect in January of this year.  The U.S. is among many countries that have laws which could affect the usage of Twitter accounts.  Regarding Twitter’s censorship policy, Twitter’s chief lawyer Alex Macgillivray emphasized that “[w]ith hundreds of millions of Tweets posted every day around the world, our goal is to respect our users’ expression, while also taking into consideration applicable local laws.”

Twitter enforced its new policy twice last week to comply with German and French laws regarding expression.

The hate group Besseres Hannover (English translation: “Better Hannover”) is a group seeking to implement some of the policies of Hitler in modern day Germany.  In particular, Besseres Hannover calls for the implementation of a Fourth Reich, rounding up Jews, and expelling immigrants from Germany.  Several Besseres Hannover members have been charged with creating a criminal organization and inciting racial hatred.  German authorities disbanded the neo-Nazi group and seized its assets earlier this month. 

German authorities then sought to shut down all the group’s social network accounts.  After receiving a letter from the German police requesting that Bessers Hannover’s Twitter account be disabled, Twitter responded by eliminating access to the account from inside Germany.  However, because the legal complaint is specific to Germany, Twitter did not disable access to the group’s site to users outside of Germany.

A day after Twitter disabled Besseres Hannover’s account, Twitter implemented further censorship by agreeing to remove racist messages from Twitter.  These offensive Tweets began on October 10 in the form of slurs and photos related to the Holocaust.  In particular, images of a gaunt Holocaust victim and a pile of ash were displayed through Twitter.  Anti-Islamic Tweets soon followed the initial anti-Semitic Tweets.

Instead of being spurred by a national government, a private entity persuaded Twitter to agree to remove a list of Tweets that the group found offensive.  The French Union of Jewish Students threatened to sue Twitter for violation of France’s law which forbids all discrimination based on religion, race, nationality, or ethnicity.  Although Twitter complied with the group’s request to remove the Tweets, the French Union of Jewish Students still plans to file a formal complaint against Twitter to seek justice against those responsible for the offensive Tweets.

According to Emma Llanso of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, this could be only the beginning of Twitter’s censorship of Tweets.  She remarked that “[i]f Twitter seems to be stepping back in its support of free expression, it might find itself under more pressure” from other nations or private groups.

As technology plays an increasing role in communication around the world, Internet companies will more often find themselves positioned as intermediaries between technology users and national governments.

Many other prominent Internet companies have complied with local free speech laws.  After losing a 2006 appeal, Yahoo was forced to remove Nazi memorabilia from its auction site to conform to French law, which prohibits pro-Nazi propaganda.  In the wake of the fury over the “Innocence of Muslims” video, Google decided to block access to the video in Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Libya. 

 As technology plays an increasing role in communication around the world, Internet companies will more often find themselves positioned as intermediaries between technology users and national governments.  Twitter’s recent censorship indicates there is a trend toward online companies complying with censorship requests.