“Twitter has blocked users in Germany from access to the account of a neo-Nazi group that is banned by the government, renewing concerns about the future of free speech on the site.” (NY Times). In January of this year, Twitter created a policy known as “country-withheld content”, which Twitter states is meant to create a balance of compliance with local laws and freedom of expression. This block of access is the first time that Twitter has enforced this policy. Last month, “German authorities in the state of Lower Saxony” banned the group. Further, the German police requested that Twitter shut down the group’s account. However, Twitter only blocked access in Germany. Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, stated that “it’s better for twitter if they can keep countries happy without having to take the whole thing down.” (NY Times). Unlike the United States, freedom of expression is more restrictive in Germany, where “Nazi symbols and slogans can be criminally prosecuted.” (NY Times).
As we have seen throughout the recent months, freedom of expression has been involved in the news on an international scale. Earlier this year, Egypt had similar freedom of expression questions when they issued warrants for the arrest of the creators of the anti-Islamic video entitled “Innocence of Muslims.” (PILR: Egypt Issues Warrants Over Controversial Anti-Islam Video) This video later came to the forefront of restricting content on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. (PILR: Hate Speech or Too Late Speech).As mentioned in PILR: Hate Speech or Too Late Speech, “twitter’s wide boundary for speech has gotten them into hot water with governments.” With that being said, it is clear that Twitter has taken a more stringent approach in this scenario with their ban of this group to avoid such trouble with countries.
Regardless of your opinions on this Neo-Nazi group, which I would assume as a majority we all view negatively, do you feel that this was the proper course of action to take in banning access to the group’s tweets in Germany? Do you feel that the group should be able to post content via their twitter page without the government’s restriction? Does this ban open a Pandora’s box for other restriction on freedom of expression or is this action justified based on the history of this group?
PILR: Hate Speech or Too Late Speech
PILR: Egypt Issues Warrants Over Controversial Anti-Islamic Video
Picture Source: http://thetwitterapps.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/TwitterBan.jpg
I do not think that Twitter, Facebook or YouTube should ban the account in Germany. The “country-withheld content” policy may seem like a good idea but I believe implementing it will be difficult and will come with many criticisms and backlash from the users of these social media sites. In response to Peter’s second question, Germany should not be able to ban the existence of the Neo-Nazi group. I understand that Germany has established laws in response to the horrifying acts of its government during WWII and wants to prevent such inhumane acts from every reoccurring. I think Germany is also trying to keep the Holocaust and its involvement in it, in the past, but this Neo-Nazi group, or any other politically or socially unfavorable group should not be banned because of their expression. If people do not like its message then they can ignore it or if this group does anything illegal, its members will be arrested and charged. Freedom of expression comes in many forms that may or may not offend people but it is an essential liberty that should only be restricted in dire circumstances. A society without free expression stalls further growth and prosperity.
I am an advocate for the freedom of speech and expression, and I agree with McCallion’s points, but I struggle to blame Twitter for banning this neo-Nazi account in Germany. As Peter stated, it would be much easier for Twitter to ban the account in Germany, rather than put up a fight with the country or ban the account from the website internationally. I do believe that people should be able to post their opinions on the Internet, but we still have censorship for particular issues in society that are outrageous to such an extent, or as McCallion noted, ‘dire circumstances.’ Allowing a neo-Nazi group to post its views in Germany does not reach the level of dire circumstances, but after the atrocities the Nazi’s caused in Europe in the 20th century, perhaps the German government should have the ability to ban any form of Nazi expression? I do not know that I would have made this same decision if I managed Twitter, and I know this degree of censorship would not fly in the U.S., but maybe Germany’s history makes for an (extremely rare) exception?
If I owned Twitter, deep down I would probably want to ban this ignorant account internationally, along with many other accounts. However, due to the freedom of expression, which fuels social media sites like Twitter, but also as McCallion noted, fuels society’s ‘further growth and prosperity,’ tolerance of expression is absolutely necessary.
The censorship of “country withheld content” points to a larger issue of governmental sovereignty. At first glance, I view the country withheld content as twitter’s way of respecting the law and regulations of country’s and the inherent differences in the views of governments. In this regard, I think that the ban is appropriate and twitter probably should continue to maintain this policy in the future, despite the potential for criticism. It is almost certain that the twitter ban will be abused by the policies of other Nations as well, however, this is a risk inherent in the concept of government sovereignty. I do not think risks of governmental abuse on twitter will be a real concern, since twitter can elect to change its policy should it view country withheld content as too extreme. Twitter is not governmental body and can change its policies or create exceptions to their policies freely to address the more extreme cases. I also think that we tend to forget the possibility of twitter expressing its speech in these scenarios. Twitter is choosing to enforce its policy partially because it agrees with the German government, or at least does not strongly disagree with the actions of the government. Lastly, Twitter has an economic state in following country regulations, since the company wants to expand its market by maintaining amicable relationships with the governments of the world.
I do think that Twitter took the right course of action by banning the Neo-Nazi account. While you asked me to put my own opinions of the group aside while addressing these questions, this is a much more difficult thing for the German government to do given its history. For this reason Germany has seen fit to criminalize Nazi-related speech in other forms. Therefore, it would seem, under current German law, that this group does not have the right to post such content on Twitter. If this act of censorship stood alone outside the existing laws criminalizing Nazi speech, then it could be seen as “opening a Pandora’s box.” However, since it is consistent with existing laws that prosecute Nazi slogans and symbols, I do not see it necessarily leading to broader restrictions by other nations on speech.
Furthermore, I think the broader implications lie with the question posed in the NY Times article discussing “how broadly and under what rules the policy will be applied by a company with users around the world.”
In my opinion, it was certainly the correct course of action for Twitter to ban access to the account in Germany. Current German law does not allow anything that has to do with Nazis. It is not for Twitter to determine whether that law is correct or not. When the company is displaying content in a country it should abide by that country’s laws. That is not to say that I agree with the law, or that I believe Twitter cannot be an advocate for freedom of expression. However, if the company’s management does wish to be such an advocate, they should not break the law to do so. Moreover, I do not believe that Twitter, or other social media companies, should be able to display content without government interference. We are lucky here, in the United States, that our government allows us the freedom to express ourselves and our views even if they are contrary to the government’s official opinion. Other countries, however, do not allow such freedom. I do not personally agree with these restrictions, but as long as they are in place, I do believe that companies must abide by them. If people feel so strongly against them, then they should make a push to get the laws changed.
If you look at this issue from a different constitutional standpoint, the answer seems clear. Instead of viewing the account block as a limitation on free speech, I see it as Twitter cracking down on hate speech. Twitter removed the racist and anti-Semitic posts after it was threatened with a lawsuit from a Jewish group for “running afoul of national laws against hate speech.” If we see these posts as hate speech, which is fairly easy to do especially for those targeted directly by the tweets, then Twitter acted properly.
Twitter points out that its decision to block Neo-Nazi group access was uncommon. After all, Twitter does not mediate content and only investigates information when it receives alerts to do so. The tweets appeared in different languages, catching the attention of users in various countries. The content at issue here – pictures evoking the Holocaust (a pile of ash, an emaciated victim) and other discriminatory slurs – was clearly intended to vilify a particular group of people and thus falls under unprotected hate speech. Or at least it would in the United States. European countries must have similar constitutional provisions given the basis of the threatened lawsuit. In fact, while the content clearly violates French law which forbids all discrimination based on ethnicity, nationality, race or religion, it is even more so directly banned in Germany where, because of its Nazi past, “strict laws prohibiting the use of related symbols and slogans — like the display of the swastika…” are simply not tolerated.
Once Twitter agreed to pull the content, people immediately criticized the social media network for limiting the freedom of expression of users. Elie Petit, vice president of the group who threatened the lawsuit, had a quick response: “I don’t think a call for murder is freedom of expression.” He’s absolutely right.