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Summary:

Jewish groups in France are invoking hate speech laws to demand that Twitter hand over the identities of users who tweeted anti-Semitic messages. This puts Twitter in a hard place because the company is committed to free speech.

Twitter has earned a reputation as a free speech defender in America. Now the micro-blogging site is resisting government pressure and legal demands by Jewish groups to hand over the identity of users who tweet objectionable things.

The controversy deepened on Tuesday in Paris, where Twitter told a judge that it needed the green light of an American court before it could disclose who was using hashtags like #unbonjuif (“a good Jew”) and #siJetaisNazi (“if I was a Nazi”).

The lawsuit came about as Jewish student groups asked a court to force Twitter to comply with the country’s laws against hate speech. The French government is not directly involved in the case, but a senior Minister told the newspaper Le Monde that Twitter “has every interest in adapting to the legal, philosophic and ethical culture of the countries where they want to do business.”

The situation places Twitter in a bind. On one hand, the country is obliged to comply with the laws of the countries in which it operates. But on the other hand, the French legal request goes against the First Amendment and the company’s commitment to stand up for its users’ voice.

The actual hashtag situation is unpleasant too. French tabloid L’express reports that last Sunday, the Nazi tag was “trending” on Twitter with more than 1,200 tweets — the same number as the number of tweets about actor and tax refugee Gerard Depardieu. Here is one violent example (many other Twitter users responded to these tweets by denouncing the hashtag):

The difference is that the U.S. has a legal culture where “the strongest weapon against hateful speech … is more speech” while European laws seek to use speech laws to curb racism. Unfortunately, as happened in my native Canada, hate speech laws can also become a way for groups to censor political views they don’t like.

Now the question is whether the French judge will buy Twitter’s claim that it needs permission from a U.S. court to identify the anti-Semites. According to a source familiar with the case, Twitter’s legal theory is based on the fact that the user profiles are on servers in America. But this is unlikely to work.

“The French courts have a reasonable basis for taking jurisdiction if the material is transmitted or received in France; I think that they are likely to take jurisdiction,” said Stephen Scott, a constitutional law expert at McGill University. He added that the French government’s attitude will be, “if you want to play on our rink, you play by our rules.”

Twitter could still hold out if it loses, of course. But Scott says this could lead French authorities to target Twitter’s assets and operations in Paris as a source of leverage. If Twitter simply decamped, the French would conceivably have to consider China-style restrictions on Twitter.

Twitter provided the following statement:

“Twitter does not moderate content. We adhere to the laws of the countries in which we operate and have clear rules and terms of service that govern user behavior on the platform. If we are alerted to content that may be in violation of our terms of service, we will investigate each report and respond according to the policies and procedures outlined in our support pages. You can find the Twitter Rules here: twitter.com/rules and additional support information here: support.twitter.com.”

(Image by  ollyy via Shutterstock)

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  1. Great piece! We weighed in on the topic on the @RudeBaguette today as well – http://www.rudebaguette.com/2013/01/09/twitter-not-yielding-to-french-complaints-and-rightly-so/

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Liam.. Have been a fan RudeBaguette for some time.. Keep up the good work and drop by if you’re in NYC

  2. I whole heartedly support the right to free speech, but that doesn’t mean I, for one second, will allow a pedophile to talk about molesting children.

    You have to draw a line somewhere and it starts with hate speech.

    First Amendment rights are NOT protected if that speech goes against the values of society at large. This is why pedos aren’t allowed to have those “materials” (pictures/films – written stories are fine)

  3. Hang in there, Twitter! Racism is a growing problem in Europe, but censorship is not the way to fight it.

  4. Graham Anderson Thursday, January 10, 2013

    Twitter can take a 1st Amendment stance on the issue, but the French government can equally take action against the corporation where it can. So, taking legal action against Twitter employees based in France, fining corporate entities based in France and ultimately, forcing ISPs to block in France.

    Given the sweeping powers of a European Arrest Warrant, Twitter employees may not be safe from the French in London or other European bases.

    This is much the same as eBay being forced to block Nazi memorabilia sales in France and Germany. As an example of European jurisdictions flexing their right to enforce law in their own territory, see the case against the MD of CompuServe in Germany http://www.kuner.com/data/reg/somm.html

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