Twitter this week announced that it had blocked the account of German far-right group Besseres Hannover.
The small anti-immigrant group is accused of inciting racism and Neo-Nazism, and has been banned under Germany’s strict anti-Nazi laws.
A letter from Hanover police informed Twitter of this ban, and requested that they block the site: the platform complied, and since 25 September, the account has been unavailable.
It’s important to note the “in Germany” part. Besseres Hanover’s twitter account is still available in the rest of the world, though until today it had not been updated since the ban.
Back in January, Twitter announced that it would be introducing a system where it would comply with national blocking orders while keeping content available outside the relevant jurisdiction.
Interestingly, the blog post announcing this policy specifically mentioned Germany’s anti-Nazi laws:
As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.
Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.
The reaction to this announcement was mixed: some initially screamed “CENSORSHIP!”, but probably the fairest analysis came from EFF’s Jillian C York, who wrote:
Let’s be clear: This is censorship. There’s no way around that. But alas, Twitter is not above the law. Just about every company hosting user-generated content has, at one point or another, gotten an order or government request to take down content. Google lays out its orders in its Transparency Report. Other companies are less forthright. In any case, Twitter has two options in the event of a request: Fail to comply, and risk being blocked by the government in question, or comply (read: censor).
… I understand why people are angry, but this does not, in my view, represent a sea change in Twitter’s policies. Twitter has previously taken down content — for DMCA requests, at least — and will no doubt continue to face requests in the future. I believe that the company is doing its best in a tough situation… and I’ll be the first to raise hell if they screw up.
It’s a realistic view, and I’d be very surprised if Jillian raised hell about today’s case. Twitter is a private company, and while it has a decent record on free speech, it cannot be expected to go to the barricades for every issue. Moreover, Germany is a huge and wealthy market.
Twitter has complied with the law, and been open about it. The German law itself is the problem. Banning far-right views and Nazi-inspired historical revisionism is anachronistic for a modern liberal democracy. And these laws are pointed to as an example when the EU attempts to lecture the world on free speech.
In this case, Germany is censoring a tiny organisation whose main spokesman is a man in a furry outfit called Abschiebär, who appears in videos making Hitler salutes and mocking kebab shop workers. Interestingly, Abschiebär’s videos are still available on YouTube.
Nonetheless, it’s worth keeping an eye on this development: In our enthusiasm for social media, we often forget that we are communicating on platforms run by private companies. In order to function, private companies must obey the law of the land. The privatisation of social space is going to be a crucial factor in free speech debates.