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Summary:

First Reddit and now Twitter have had to confront issues related to freedom of speech recently, and decide which way they are going to go when it comes to protecting it. As social media becomes more mainstream, such battles will likely become more frequent.

Where should freedom of speech begin and end when you are a web-based entity with a global audience? That’s the question raised by a couple of recent events, including the furor over a Reddit moderator’s creepy behavior, and now the news that Twitter has blocked an account for the first time at the request of a state government — in this case Germany, which asked the service to take action against a Twitter user posting neo-Nazi sentiments, something that is forbidden by the laws of that country. As the web and social tools become more mainstream, these kinds of battles over the limits that should apply to free speech are only going to become more frequent, but the solution to them remains elusive at best.

In the case of Reddit, a moderator known as Violentacrez created a series of offensive and quasi-legal threads or sub-Reddits within the site devoted to posting photos of women (in some cases, minors) taken in public without their permission, and when Gawker writer Adrian Chen said he planned to make the moderator’s real identity public — which he later did in a long profile of Violentacrez and his various obsessions — some parts of the Reddit community responded by banning links to any Gawker Media blogs, raising questions about the site’s commitment to free speech.

An internal memo from Reddit CEO Yishan Wong later admitted that the ban — which was not site-wide but confined to certain specific parts of the community — “is not making Reddit look so good,” and that in the future the site will “respect journalism as a form of speech that we don’t ban,” just as sub-Reddits devoted to offensive content are:

“We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it. Not because that’s the law in the United States – because as many people have pointed out, privately-owned forums are under no obligation to uphold it – but because we believe in that ideal independently.”

Twitter blocks its first account for hate speech

Meanwhile, Twitter said on Wednesday that it has blocked the account of a neo-Nazi group at the request of the German government, something that the company announced earlier this year it had the ability to do — although it said at the time that it would try hard to only use this feature in extreme circumstances, and would record its behavior at Chilling Effects so that everyone would know. The block was announced in a tweet from general counsel Alex Macgillivray, and he later added: “Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently.”

Although Twitter has blocked accounts for other reasons — including the controversial blocking of a Financial Times journalist who criticized the network’s corporate partner, NBC, during the Summer Olympics — this is the first time it has done so at the request of a foreign government. Since its inception, Twitter has boasted that it sees itself as the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” and both Macgillivray and CEO Dick Costolo have regularly defended the need to “let the tweets flow” during events such as the Arab Spring.

As Twitter has become larger and more corporate in its focus, however, with hundreds of millions of users around the world and the need to generate revenue a priority, simply “letting the tweets flow” is no longer an option. As a global media entity, Twitter arguably had to abide by the German government’s request in order to do business there. The question is where Twitter will draw the line when free speech conflicts with its desire to either promote its corporate partnerships or make peace with foreign governments (Google also blocks content based on foreign laws in countries such as Germany, as Danny Sullivan points out).

Where does the censoring stop?

The banning of Gawker links seems like an obvious infringement on free speech — although as Yishan Wong points out, free-speech protection is something that is only legally or constitutionally required of governments, not corporations. But the posting of photos taken in public without the subject’s consent is a lot more complicated: while taking a picture of someone in public without their permission is legal in most of North America, it isn’t in some other countries because it is seen as an infringement of privacy.

Should the posting of such photos qualify as free speech, even though it is offensive to women and possibly contributes to an atmosphere of misogyny and/or promotes violence? Some would argue that they should not — or that the need to protect free speech should be modified by a desire to promote positive social attitudes, and therefore Reddit should remove this kind of content. Critics cite the famous quote from Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in which he said free speech should not protect someone who shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theater (although some legal scholars say we should be careful of how much we cite Holmes, since his commitment to free-speech principles was questionable at best).

But Twitter’s decision to bow to Germany’s desire to block a specific account is troubling for a number of reasons. Although it is nice that Twitter can allow the rest of the world to see the tweets in question, rather than blocking it entirely, this is a little like Google selectively blocking access to the offensive anti-Muslim video “The Innocence of Muslims” from Egypt and Libya. Do people in those countries not deserve to see content that everyone else can see? Are we prepared to sacrifice their free-speech rights (assuming we think they have any) to protect the interests of a specific company?

What if the government of Iran asked Twitter to block accounts that post photos of scantily-clad women because they are against the law? Would that be acceptable? Twitter has said that it will make its own judgments in such cases, as Google does — but what recourse do we have if they decide to do something we disagree with? More than anything, these kinds of cases reinforce how much influence private entities like Twitter and Google now have over what information we receive (or are able to distribute), and the responsibility that this power imposes on them.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Jennifer Moo and Rosaura Ochoa

  1. The sub-text of some of the opinion out there in Silicon Valley seems to be that freedom of speech takes precedence over paedophilia and ethnic hate crime? How have the digerati found themselves in this position? And how has Reddit, a mainstream service, got itself in a position where it allows content bordering on sex-crime on the grounds of free speech whilst banning news articles from Gawker? Time to see the wood for the trees?

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Robert — I think one of the hard parts is where exactly Reddit’s content falls in the “bordering on sex crime” department. Is a shot of someone standing in public a sex crime simply because their head is missing from the shot? These aren’t all “upskirts” as most people seem to assume, nor are they all of children. And as for Germany’s laws against hate crime, I think they are a mistake — just as I think similar laws in Canada are a mistake. Who defines hate crime?

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      1. Well, I think Germany’s views on Nazi stuff are understandable; they’ve been so progressive as a post-war country that has shed that past, no need to do back.

        Point taken on the ambiguity on subreddits. Given the current climate in the UK on this stuff, the guy would probably have just been arrested regardless. That over-zealousness we are seeing here may be reined in soon. So I guess everyone’s trying to find the balance.

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  2. Without our freedom of speech on Twitter or Reddit what are we?! They still are racists, perverts, or sexist but to make their views known will have to do it in person, physically. I don’t always agree with what people put on the web, but I feel if people are going to be ignorant, let them do it on the internet. Most of them won’t act on it anyway. As for those who do act on it, they wouldn’t need a sub-reddit or a tweet to do it. They’ll do it with or without one. The internet has become a containment area. People who need to express their thoughts, no matter how evil, now have a avenue to do it. But when these thoughts start to rally supporters, create physical uproar, yes shut it down. Humans need to express their views, not everyone’s are right, not everyone’s are sane, but if they can’t do it anonymously without retribution from people they know personally, we will have a much bigger problem off the internet.

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    1. I’m totally with you on the issue of freedom of speech, but I lost you at this idea that freedom of speech means freedom from accountability of your speech.

      Heaven forbid people be held accountable for the things they say. This idea that “the internet is containment” is purely appeasement and is actually horrible counter to the idea of freedom of speech. Remember, the concept of free speech is ONLY that speech should not be limited by governments and people with the power to suppress it. You don’t get to choose who’s speech is free – the pedophile’s speech or the journalist’s speech outing the pedophile.

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      1. Exactly. Plus, freedom of speech doesn’t include an anonymity clause and neither does the internet. Just because you are allowed to say something, doesn’t mean you are guaranteed that no one will ever find out it was you and you will never, ever be held accountable for what you say.

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  3. Hey man, post photos of chicks without their consent all you want, so long as they are legal. But be prepared for others to exercise their right to free speech and name you. Sure it might put you at risk, BUT statistically speaking, you are most likely to face “just” death threats, and not any real violence. Certainly no more than the countless politicians, activists, public figures and journalists, who routinely use their real names to do business, and face backlashes. It might make you uncomfortable, and feel unsafe, but not much more than the women you are victimizing.

    Tough break, this whole freedom of speech thingy, huh?

    Oh yeah, and his name isn’t Violentnutz, or whatever. It’s Michael Brutsch.

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    1. Absolutely well said.

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  4. Blocking Gawker Media? Good. Those scumbags are the biggest trolls on the internet. They make money by causing controversy, even if it is a ridiculous lie (like the Razer article by Kotaku). and then getting nerds to rage in the comments. Gawker Media getting the boot is always a good thing. On the other hand, Reddit does need to clean out the scum, Reddit does not need to stoop down and be 4chan.

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  5. The only reason I would cut Twitter a little slack at the moment is because I’m not clear on what exactly the German law says. I remember Yahoo got into a mess with the French government over their laws on Nazi paraphernalia (although I think that was about selling, not speech). It sounds like Twitter’s legal dept. is trying to prevent a lawsuit. Is that the right thing to do? Not to me. If Twitter was actively involved in what content was posted, if they moderated everything (kind of like Reddit, but that is a different beast), then I could understand them banning a user. But they are really just a platform and completely separate from the content.

    When it comes down to it, I agree with JohnP. If it’s technically legal, then legally we can’t stop you, but we can exercise the same rights as them to name the people involved and express our disapproval. Michael Brustsch is the latest one, but I think David Duke is the best example. Sure, he has the right to be a neo-nazi scumbag, just like we have the right to call him the face of hatred and racism. Governments can ban him from entering the country, like the Czech Republic did, but if he had been let in and allowed to tell everyone there that he doesn’t believe in the Holocaust, they would have found out first hand what an idiot he is and cast him out anyway. When you’ve only heard rumors about an issue, it’s trivialized. But when people like this are in your face, the issues become real and serious and you can’t ignore it.

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  6. As GigaOM reported on July 31, 2012, Guy Adams — the journalist blocked by Twitter — worked for the Independent, not the Financial Times.

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  7. in the marketplace of free speech the conversation should always be free, whatever the platform. If certain countries view it as illegal speech they should prosecute as they would if the person was proselytizing in the town square. Nowhere do we shut down the square and that is where Twitter , Google etc are erring. Give them the users details and let them deal with it As to reddit that’s teenage anger at being called out when you know your in the wrong, the free speech flowed, that’s what happens when you try to control something you have no control over. Them’s the consequences.

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  8. You touch on this issue briefly, but people seem to consider Twitter a public utility. It’s not. It’s a private company. They could decide to censor anything bad said about Michael Jackson, or any mention of the color chartreuse, and that would be their right.

    People have no more right to say anything on Twitter without being censored than you have a right to barge into my private living room if I don’t want you there.

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  9. Gawker themselves post upskirts,underage nudes,public photos of women and private sex tapes.

    Most people seem to have forgotten or are unaware that Gawker’s moral crusade is built on hypocrisy.

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  10. The author should also comment on the case of the suspension of Daniel Vergara’s parody Twitter account of Jennifer Rubin. It was in no way profane or scurrilous, but was an entirely humorous sendup of the Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin (a public figure). This twitter account was suspended weeks ago: https://twitter.com/JRubinBIogger
    See also the link by James Fallows:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/hitler-and-the-secret-video-the-creator-speaks/262664/
    Seems to me that this is Twitter censorship, but there may be more to the story.

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