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Since the advent of social media, the specter of online censorship has loomed. Last week, Twitter dove headlong into the fray with a swift one-two punch that has some celebrating and others crying foul. Nine months ago Twitter unveiled plans that would allow the company to block access to certain Twitter accounts on a country-specific level. The aim of the plan was to limit access to tweets that might break the laws of individual countries.
At the time, the program sparked uproar. Free speech advocates worried about the limitation of expression, while dissidents and activists living under oppressive regimes worried that this program would be used to silence their voices. Despite the outcry, Twitter insisted that its commitment to free speech was resolute.
Twitter implemented its program for the first time last Thursday when it blocked access inside Germany to the account of the neo-Nazi group Besseres Hannover (“Better Hanover”). The group is banned in Germany since the use of Nazi symbols and slogans are a criminal offense. In accordance with the policy, Twitter acted in response to requests from German officials—having declined to act on six previous such requests according to its biannual transparency report. While users in Germany simply receive a notification that the account has been blocked, users outside the country can still view the group’s posts. Germany’s past is the basis for its strict controls of speech like this, but the website (and therefore the account in question) is hosted here in the United States. This begs the question: which country’s legal norms should be applied for regulation of this type of content?
Not content to spark headlines for only one day, Twitter agreed to remove certain anti-Semitic posts that had been emanating from France the following day. The posts in question centered on the hashtag “#unbonjuif” (“a good Jew”) and included images from the Holocaust coupled with anti-Semitic jokes. Rather than receiving requests from French officials, Twitter was alerted to these tweets by several Jewish groups within the country. Like Germany, France’s freedom of speech is not as potent as in the United States, and one of these Jewish groups threatened to seek an injunction in French courts to suppress these posts.
Twitter’s actions have invited comments from both sides. Free speech advocates have denounced this as the restraint on free expression they were concerned about at the unveiling of the program. They took to using the controversial hashtag to denounce Twitter’s decision. Those on the other side have touted this as the elimination of hate speech and denounced these posts as “a wave of feverish hatred.” To some, this might seem like an easy decision to make, considering the nature of the posts at issue. Antisemitism and neo-Nazism would qualify as hate speech to even the most zealous of free-speech advocates. The question going forward should not be whether the blocking of these particular posts is the right decision. It should be: now that Twitter has opened these floodgates, where exactly will it draw the line between what is acceptable regulation of hateful statements and what is censorship of the valid exercise of free speech? Other social media outlets have struggled mightily with this question, and I do not believe Twitter will be able to adequately answer it any time soon.
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