In France, Twitter walks the tightrope on freedom of expression

Modern States
Modern States

The war for the control of free speech online rages on, and the latest battle is taking place in France.

A French judge has ordered Twitter to reveal the identities of users tweeting anti-Semitic remarks published using offensive hashtags such as #UnBonJuif and #UnJuifMort (#AGoodJew and #ADeadJew), after a Jewish students’ association brought the case to court. The judge gave Twitter two weeks to comply, after which the company faces a daily fine of €1000.

In the past, Twitter has tended to tolerate the free expression of its users: in 2010, the company refused to comply with a subpoena from the American Justice Department requesting user information related to Wikileaks. But last October, it blocked access to a neo-Nazi account in Germany—though users in other countries can still see it—following a request from local authorities, since promulgating Nazi ideology is illegal in Germany. In France, where anti-Semitic remarks are punishable by up to six months in jail, Twitter has to determine how to protect its users’ privacy while also obeying local laws.

Even leaving the law aside, it’s a tortured issue. Felix Tréguer, a French internet activist whose work focuses on free expression online, says he thinks the case reveals problems with the way French legal doctrine treats free expression: “We’ve kept the same rules in place for centuries and act as if the legal framework developed to regulate speech in a traditional media environment is perfectly transposable onto this new world,” he says. Tréguer adds, “The internet is the American First Amendment made flesh—or bits. You’ve got two options—either you put a cop behind every screen to arrest everyone who is transgressing, or you accept that, online, free speech is the modus operandi.”

But some are not content with this in France, where a quarter of the population (pdf, page 10) holds anti-Semitic beliefs, and where there has been a 45% increase in physical attacks on Jews last year. Jonathan Hayoun, the president of the students’ association that brought the case to court, recently wrote (link in French), “At times like this, people ask us to understand that [these tweets] are just virtual noise, the necessary symptom of free speech. But they have the nauseating whiff of a shift in attitudes toward scapegoats.”

While Twitter says it tolerates all opinions, the company doesn’t apply censorship only when the law forces it to; it will take measures against users for material deemed too offensive. For example, last week Twitter deactivated (French) an account used by the Shabaab militia, in Somalia, after the Islamists used the account to announce they had killed a French soldier, tweeting a picture of his corpse. (On their still-operational Arabic account, reports the French Huffingon Post, the Shabaab tweeted that the suspension of their English-language account was “new proof of freedom of expression in the West”).

Since the French court issued its order, Twitter has blocked tweets that use the anti-Semitic hashtags, though it hasn’t yet divulged the identities of the anti-Semitic tweeters. And, as in the German case, it’s not hard for French users to get around the blockade. They can see the offending tweets just by telling Twitter they’re in a different country (French).

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