Twitter’s Censorship Conundrum

by Matt Klassen on January 28, 2013

Once attributed to Voltaire, in 1906 English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall penned the iconic statement, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” a phrase that has been the rallying cry of censorship opponents and free speech advocates the world over ever since.

As a defender of the freedom of speech, in this age of anonymous social networking I nevertheless find myself asking, do we need to defend people’s right to say whatever they want? Would Hall still want to defend the anonymous vitriolic hate that spews forth from social networks on a daily basis?

Consider the legal thicket Twitter currently finds itself in Europe, where the French government has ordered the social networking giant to hand over the identities of users who posted illegal racist hate-filled tweets late last year. Aside from the larger ethical concerns of hate speech and freedom of speech, this situation raises questions of what laws companies are beholden to, the laws of the countries in which they operate, or their own internal policies.

More to the point, Twitter’s own policies say it will never release user’s identities unless under a court order from a U.S. government, meaning that the social network may soon butt heads with the French government over defending the anonymity of those spewing some of the most deplorable speech imaginable.

At the same time humorous and disconcerting, it often seems to me that the majority of the situations in which free speech and freedom in general come under fire here in the West are defending words or actions that most of us find heinous and unacceptable. The argument, of course, is that if we start censoring people’s racist musings or what have you, it won’t be long until all the rest of us start feeling the oppressive hand of Big Brother on our shoulder. But I digress…

Ethical conundrum aside, these racist tweets pose an important jurisdictional problem as well, as given the fact the tweets are stored and posted from Twitter’s American-based servers, one has to ask if the French government has any right to demand such information from the social network? At present it looks like Twitter isn’t so sure, as the company has said it is reviewing all aspects of the case before it responds to the court’s decision.

While under normal circumstances a company’s own privacy policies would always be superseded by the laws of the country they are doing business in, as tech analysts Rob Enderle explains, the laws of country trump corporate policy only if the company is physically in that country, stating that with the Internet, “things become fuzzy,” simply because an entity like Twitter has no physical presence in France.

There is precedent in this sort of jurisdictional conflict, however, that would lend support to the conclusion that sooner or later Twitter will have to adhere to the court order. As Karl Manheim, a professor at the Loyola Law School, explains, actions like the French governments ruling against Yahoo in 2000, where the company was prevented from allowing users to access a website selling Nazi paraphernalia, serve as “suitable precedent” that France will be able to uphold its laws prohibiting hate speech, and that Twitter, regardless of where it does business, will have to comply.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. Follow by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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