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 Le Monde newspaper 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 tshmore than 1200 tweets — the same number as were tweeting about actor and tax refugee Gerard Depardieu. Here is one violent example (many other Twitter users responded to these tweets by denouncing the hashtag):
#SiJetaisNazi j’lancerai la Nuke sur Israel
— Call me Pretty Boy. (@Z_ouu) January 5, 2013
The situation in France is as if #Ihatewhites or #downwithMexicans became trending topics in America.
The difference is that the US 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 US 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)