Twitter may be run by a private corporation, but it has quickly become one of the strongest tools we have for free speech, which is why it’s so important that the company resist efforts to curb that speech.

Whether it’s being used as a communications tool for dissidents during the Arab Spring uprisings or a real-time newswire about events like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, Twitter has become a crucial platform for speech of all kinds — and in many cases that speech is unpleasant and even offensive. That may be taken for granted in the United States, but it doesn’t go over well in other countries with different views about speech, and that is making things increasingly difficult for Twitter. For now at least — to its credit — it seems determined to remain the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”

Last fall, a Twitter hashtag — #UnBonJuif, or A Good Jew — resulted in a number of anti-Semitic posts. Although Twitter removed the offending tweets after a complaint by the Union of Jewish French Students (UEJF), the group was not satisfied and sued to force the service to reveal the identities of those who posted the messages. A French court eventually agreed to this demand, since anti-Semitic comments and other “hate speech” are illegal in that country.

So far, Twitter has not complied with the court order — it is appealing the judgement, arguing that since it is a U.S. company it only has to comply with such demands from U.S. courts and other authorities. Meanwhile, the UEJF said it plans to file a second lawsuit in criminal court, seeking damages of $50 million for Twitter’s failure to provide the data.

A private company, but a platform for public speech


Twitter has revealed user data in several cases after being forced to do so by U.S. courts, including personal data related to several users who were supporters of WikiLeaks, such as Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir and hacker Jacob Appelbaum. Twitter also handed over tweets by two members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, after being forced to do so by a court order, although it fought against both of these decisions — and also made the request for the Occupy supporter’s data public even though it was asked not to do so.

What makes these kinds of cases so difficult is that Twitter is a private corporation with a proprietary platform, and yet it is being used as a public communications vehicle around the world, and one whose free-speech aspects are becoming increasingly important. And while we may all agree that certain types of speech are offensive, the idea that governments or courts can force Twitter to reveal the identities of those users is troubling in the extreme.

While Facebook and to some extent Google are also being used in this kind of context, Twitter is unique in the sense that it explicitly allows people to use pseudonyms. Facebook has a firm policy on the use of “real” or verified names, and while Google somewhat grudgingly allowed users to add pseudonyms to their Google+ accounts after what some called the “nym wars,” the service is still designed primarily for “real” names. Twitter is one of the only communications platforms of its size and reach that freely allows users to be known by pseudonyms.

As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci and Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (among others) have argued, anonymity or pseudonymity may allow for all kinds of offensive behavior — including the anti-Semitic comments in France and racist tweets posted by a number of users following the re-election of President Barack Obama — but protecting users’ identities is also a crucial factor that allows Twitter to be used as a communications tool by all kinds of disadvantaged groups, including political dissidents.

The free-speech wing of the free-speech party

twitter bird tweets logo drawing

The pressure on Twitter to resist demands like the one from France stems in part from this, and also from repeated comments from the company’s chief legal counsel, Alex Macgillivray, and CEO Dick Costolo that they are committed to being the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.” The company may get criticized by some (including us) for the way it has shut down parts of its ecosystem, but its commitment to the rights of users remains.

The problem for Twitter is that as it becomes more global, it is running into country-specific demands like the one from France — or the one from Germany that led Twitter to block access to certain neo-Nazi tweets, since that kind of speech is also against the law. The risk here is that the network could easily fall victim to every government’s demands for user identities or censorship in even the most ridiculous cases, such as Turkey’s prohibition on comments that “insult Turkishness.”

If Twitter backs down on the French order, what is to stop Syria from forcing it to reveal the identities of dissidents, or Iran from forcing it to reveal who is posting anti-Muslim comments — or Britain from forcing it to identify those who were involved in the London riots, or those who post about cases covered by the country’s bizarre “super-injunctions”? Almost every country seems to have certain things that it prohibits people from saying publicly and is willing to go to court over.

But the bottom line is that freedom of speech — however offensive that speech might be — is a principle that needs all the help it can get, and Twitter deserves some credit for sticking to its guns, despite the obvious pressures it must be feeling.

Post and thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user Hoggarazi and Shutterstock / Rob Kints

  1. Law Abiding Citizen Wednesday, March 27, 2013

    No company, no matter how enabling of free speech they are, should unilaterally decide that they don’t have to honor a lawful subpoena or court order.

    By deciding that they are are above the law, they are acting as the judiciary. Who gave them the right to decide which laws they should follow and which they should not?

    Was the CEO of Twitter elected or appointed as a judge? No. He is a CEO of a private company, with shareholders, and a profit incentive.

    What is happening is the dreaded slippery slope where individuals or private companies are assuming the role of government even when they do not have the right or perhaps the experience to do so.

    If Twitter is refusing to honor a lawful court order, then they are breaking the law, and should be held accountable.

    1. So then Twitter should be subject to every law in every country or jurisdiction where tweets can be posted or read — is that your argument? Even if those laws contravene the rights of Twitter users in the country where the company is based, and where all of its servers and the information it hosts is located? That’s a difficult argument to justify. Also, Twitter isn’t defying a court order — it’s appealing the judgement.

      1. Law Abiding Citizen Wednesday, March 27, 2013

        Interesting thread we have going here….

        Should Twitter be subject to national laws or international laws? Yes, of course, a company that is operating in a country should be subject to the laws of that country. If a company doesn’t want to be subject to the rules and laws of a country, then don’t do business there, regardless of how beneficial that company’s services are.

        Are you positing that the laws of a country are essentially carried along with traffic to any destination? Does that imply that a country where – for example – pirated material is not illegal, if that content was streamed to a country where pirated material is illegal it is transformed at a national border to become legal?

        Of course, there is complexity in following the laws of nearly 190 countries around the globe. But, I imagine that Internet companies could develop the capabilities (i.e. geo-locating source and destination is easy these days, especially at a national level) to handle a multi-jurisdictional business in the same way that an international shipping company such as FedEx does.

      2. Okay, in what way does Twitter “operate” in France? It doesn’t ship or deliver or handle physical goods the way FedEx does — and the physical objects that are associated with its business (the data from its users and the servers that the data resides on) are located in the United States. If Twitter is subject to every law on hate speech or some other banned behavior in every country where tweets appear, then anyone could have their identity revealed because they broke the law of a country they aren’t even a citizen of. That hardly seems right or fair.

      3. That is exactly what is happening when you access the internet.

        Saudi Arabia used Interpol to detain a Saudi in Malaysia because he insulted Muhammad on Twitter.

        A Kuwaiti man was arrested after he “insulted” their president on the site.

        This isn’t about laws or business. It’s about the company’s ideal of being “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” as this article has restated around 4 times. They WANT you to have the right of free speech, while most other companies like to take away your rights.

        Normally I would agree with your statement, any company that assumes the role of judge, jury, or executioner should be stricken down immediately. However, things are never painted black or white. There will always be shades of grey. And this is one of those shades.

      4. I’m trying to reply to your comment about how does Twitter operate in France — if they have an office there (do they?) or take advertising dollars from anyone in France i would suggest they do. If not, I’d have to say that they are only obliged to comply with the laws where they are.

        ps. let me ask this again …can you PLEASE change your commenting system? it doesn’t work to drive any meaningful conversation. It’s ridiculous that OM is still using it in this day and age. I don’t get it and it absolutely has limited me in participating in the site.

    2. Law Questioning Outcast Wednesday, March 27, 2013

      I believe that thought monitoring is wrong, regardless of lines drawn in the sand. Not a human on this earth, not a group of humans on this earth, has the right to define what you can, and can not say. Say what you feel. Say what you believe. Say what is known to be fact, or say what has thought to been fiction. Say what you blatantly know is a lie. Say what you want. To reprimand speech is to reprimand thought.

  2. William Mougayar Wednesday, March 27, 2013

    There is a difference between insults & free speech. Yes, we need more online/Twitter free speech without fear of reprisals.

  3. too much just disgusting stuff posted by ‘PSEUDONYMS’- it is wrong – just plain wrong – comments are smaller platforms are all monitored and filtered – why makes ‘twitter’ so different? – just because it is so popular? – i am sort of new to the internet – but the stuff that i have been reading in comments especially is just ‘disgusting’~ ‘twitter’ ought to ‘zip it up’! and teach American and it’s children something-

  4. Any censorship is bad censorship. If you are offended by someone then block them. Problem solved.

  5. Law Abiding Citizen Wednesday, March 27, 2013

    Good questions, Matthew.

    (1) Is the traffic from a company that passes into or through different countries subject to the laws of that country? I am guessing the answer is up to each jurisdiction.

    (2) Can Country A force a company in Country B to reveal the identify of a user in Country A? Once again, I imagine that is up to the legal relationships between those countries.

    (3) Does Twitter operate in France. I imagine that is up to France’s definitions.

    My point is that Internet traffic is not above the law just because it is international in nature.

    And, again, are you proposing that Internet traffic should be treated globally based upon the traffic’s country of origin?


    1. I agree those are interesting questions :-) the problem is that the answers are all over the map — literally and figuratively. I’m not arguing internet traffic should be above the law, but whose law should pertain in a case like this? I don’t even know. I am just hoping that Twitter doesn’t have to bow to the lowest common denominator in cases of free speech or we are all going to be worse off as a result.

  6. Law Questioning Outcast Wednesday, March 27, 2013

    @LawAbidingCitizen I believe that thought monitoring is wrong, regardless of lines drawn in the sand. Not a human on this earth, not a group of humans on this earth, has the right to define what you can, and can not say. Say what you feel. Say what you believe. Say what is known to be fact, or say what has thought to been fiction. Say what you blatantly know is a lie. Say what you want. To reprimand speech is to reprimand thought.

  7. Free Speech fan Wednesday, March 27, 2013

    Your argument leads toward saying that other countries do not have the right to determine for themselves their own policies toward speech.

    Even if one argues that free speech is inherent to democracy, it is not democratic to insist that corporations, rather than governments, have the right to determine information policy within their borders.

    You have picked on an example where it looks “good,” at least from a certain perspective, for companies not to respect national laws, but in general this is not a good thing at all. Twitter is free to petition France to change its laws (and of course to take full advantage of its court system), but the suggestion here is that corporate practice trumps national law, and it is very easy to generate examples to show that this is a tremendously bad idea. Government exists for a reason, and the fact that some tools allow circumvention of policy does not make it right.

    To use a simple example close to this one, Germany has laws outlawing Nazi symbolism. In so far as Twitter is used by users physically located in Germany, it is essential for democracy that that policy be respected. Even if you disagree with the policy (I happen to agree with it), it’s inconsistent with any view of governmental representation I know to argue–as you are here–that Twitter’s corporate presence in the US dictates how and whether its product should function in a sovereign jurisdiction that is recognized by the UN and has duly-created and established laws.

    1. And that’s why Twitter has blocked access to those kinds of messages within Germany, but not outside it — not an ideal solution for those who believe in free speech, but one that satisfies German law. But the French student union wasn’t satisfied with that kind of solution — they want the identities of those who tweeted so that they can be prosecuted, which is a very different thing.

  8. Derrick Harris Wednesday, March 27, 2013

    It has been 3 years since I studied this subject, so I’ll try not to muddy the discussion with what I recall. This article does a decent job of explaining, though: http://euro.ecom.cmu.edu/program/law/08-732/Jurisdiction/InternationalJurisdiction.pdf.

    This one, too: http://ejil.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/4/799.full.

    Long story short: It’s complicated ;-)

  9. Thanks, Derrick — you are definitely right about that :-) and thanks for the links.

  10. William Mougayar Wednesday, March 27, 2013

    There’s something absurd about France’s demands. Twitter is just like the Internet & blogs.

    There are far more severe things being said on blogs & comments, so is France going to ask every blog owner to be subject to their demands?

    The Internet, Twitter, Google, YouTube, etc are global networks, that are open & self-policing to a large extent. They are about free speech & should stay that way.


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