Back in January, we wrote about Twitter's decision to set up tools to allow it to censor locally
if required to under local laws. While many people got upset about this, believing it meant that Twitter was supporting censorship, we noted that the issue is a bit more nuanced than that. You could
take the extreme position that Twitter should stand up for free speech absolutely, no questions asked, anywhere around the world. And, to some extent, I'm sympathetic to that viewpoint. However, at the same time, it is a fact that different countries have different laws, and some of those laws restrict free speech. Twitter's decision, then, is a compromise on that, but in a somewhat more effective way. They will only block the content in that specific country
where it has been deemed illegal.
And, now, nine months later, Twitter's General Counsel Alex Macgillivray (@amac), has admitted to using the censorship ability
for the first time, for the account of a neo-Nazi group based in Germany, where it has been declared illegal. The block only applies to Germany. As some have noted, this is a really bad group
. But, of course, it's always those kinds of cases that test your principles. As promised, Twitter has publicly shared the takedown letter it received
the enclosed letter gives you the information that the Ministry of the Interior of the State of Lower-Saxony in Germany has banned the organisation "Besseres Hannover". It is disbanded, its assets are seized and all its accounts in social networks have to be closed immediately. The Public Prosecutor (State Attorney's Office) has launched an investigation on suspicion of forming a criminal association.
It is the task fo the Polizeidirektion Hannover (Hannover Police) to enforce the ban.
The organisation "Besseres Hannover" uses the Twitter account
I ask you to close this account immediately and not to open any substitute accounts for the organisation "Besseres Hannover".
Please confirm that you have received this letter and let me know what measures you have taken.
Head of Police Admin Dept
This is the kind of thing that Twitter absolutely expected -- and the fact that is only banning the account in Germany, rather than following the demands of the letter ordering the account be shutdown completely, suggests that Twitter isn't just caving in here. Of course, given my strong belief in the importance of free speech, I think that the demand to shut down the account itself is the bigger issue here, rather than Twitter's reaction to it. In ordering it shut down, and leading to this public admission about it from Twitter, all that German law enforcement has done is call more attention to this group.
Also, I'd take some issue with Amac's claim that this is the "first time" the company has used its ability to "withhold content." It has done so repeatedly in the past over DMCA claims
. Yes, that's somewhat
different, but not as much as some would like to believe. Both are cases where the local law claims that the content in question is illegal, and upon notices sent to Twitter, it blocks that content. That makes no statement on whether or not such content should or should not be illegal. But the basics of the situation are really the same.
Either way, I appreciate that Twitter is at least trying to walk the fine line of both complying with the laws in countries like Germany, while simultaneously effectively demonstrating why such laws don't necessarily work well. I can certainly understand why
Germany has laws against neo-Nazis and hate groups. Given the history there, it's hard to imagine such laws not existing. But situations like this raise questions about just how effective they really are. In this case, all it's really done is call more attention to the group in question. As for Twitter, you could argue that the company could go much further, but it would clearly run into significant legal challenges. And, while it would be great if it also recognized that the DMCA notice situation really isn't all that different, it's difficult to fault Twitter for deciding this particular battle wasn't worth fighting against.