Leiden Law Blog

Removing Twitter accounts: censorship or obeying the law?

Posted on by Bart Schermer in Public Law
Removing Twitter accounts: censorship or obeying the law?

Besseres Hannover (@hannoverticker) is the first user account to be blocked on the basis of Twitter’s localised content access policy. In January Twitter launched this new policy. In order to comply with the national laws of the countries it operates in, Twitter blocks access to content at the request of the authorities, but only for the citizens of that particular country.

Twitter’s solution seems both elegant and pragmatic: by complying with local law it avoids (criminal) liability, has little discussion about what is or should be illegal, and keeps the content available for as many users as possible.

But while it may be elegant and pragmatic it is also seems to be a 180 degree turn for Twitter. Twitter was the poster child of Internet freedom, purportedly playing a pivotal role in the Arab Spring. At one point, Twitter even postponed maintenance of their site to enable protestors in Iran to keep using the service. It is questionable whether under this new policy Twitter would still do the same.

In any case, for now the new policy seems to be working. Twitter’s actions against Besseres Hannover -which can also be framed as active participation in government censorship- have met with little resistance from critics and civil rights movements worldwide. This probably can be attributed to the fact that there is broad consensus that the messages spread by neo-nazi groups such as Besseres Hannover are repulsive and cross the boundaries of free speech.

But still, Twitter has crossed the Rubicon and the question is where they will draw the line against government interference with their service. Will they also acquiesce to a blockade of Falun Gong accounts in China, Pussy Riot accounts in Russia, or Women on Waves accounts in Marocco? And will they also start blocking hashtags that might be considered illegal in some countries such as #adolfhitler, #acab or #1312?

Twitter’s new policy clearly illustrates the difficulties multinational Internet companies experience when operating in a global context where they are confronted with different norms, values and laws. Furthermore, it illustrates that Internet freedom is not a black and white discussion. Fortunately, organisations like the Global Network Initiative, fora like the Internet Governance Forum and countries united in the iFreedom Coalition are currently discussing how we should deal with this difficult issue. Hopefully we will be able to come to more global consensus on internet freedom through these initiatives.

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