Punishing #RacistTweets

A recent ruling by a French court has reignited discussion over censorship and freedom of expression on the internet.

Members of Union des étudiants juifs de
A French court recently ruled that Twitter had to hand over user data over racist tweets that broke local law [AFP]

Last week, a French court ruled that Twitter must furnish authorities with personal information about users who violated French laws against racist speech. If the company does not comply within 15 days, it will be fined 1,000 Euros a day until it does. This ruling follows Twitter’s earlier decision last October to delete the offending French tweets that launched the court case in the first place.

When internet companies assist governments in enforcing laws against racist speech, they contribute to the chipping away of unfettered freedom of expression. While there are serious risks when political actors seek greater control over what we say online, this process – at least in established liberal democracies – also allows values like human dignity to re-enter the equation.

It is helpful to think about the pros and cons of increasing regulation of speech on the internet in the context of concrete examples.

In the most recent French case, the Union of Jewish Students of France complained last fall about some of the tweets connected to the trending hashtag #UnBonJuif, which means literally “a good Jew”. That may sound innocuous, except that it was commonly followed by nasty codas such as “is a dead Jew”. or “is a pile of ash”. Authors claimed it was all in good fun, as the hashtag rose to become the third most popular in France.

France is not unique among European countries in having laws against racist speech. It is therefore not the first place where internet-users have come under fire for what they have written.

Last March, a 21-year old Welsh man lost his appeal against a 56-day jail term for tweets that constituted racially-aggravated public disorder.

In October 2012, after German authorities banned the far right group Besseres Hannover, Twitter deployed its new policy to block content to the group’s account within Germany. Nor are controversies and court cases like this a new phenomenon.

As long ago as November 2000, internet giant Yahoo! was required by law to bar French users from auction sites that sold Nazi paraphernalia, another illegal racist act within the country’s borders.

A clash of values

Citizens of liberal democracies like France and the United States face a fundamental problem when determining how to inhibit racist speech online. Most people in these countries are committed to freedom of speech, but they are also opposed to propagating racism.

This tension has played out with such drama in the French case because different actors in the mix are standing up so strongly to advocate for one or the other.

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Anti-racist groups like the Union of Jewish Students of France fully believe that the ruling, in the words of its president Jonathan Hayoun, “reminds victims of racism and anti-Semitism that they are not alone, and that French law, which protects them, should apply everywhere, including Twitter.”

French prosecutors and judges clearly agree. Going beyond the mandate to turn over user data, the court also said that the company should set up for French users “an easily accessible and visible system enabling anyone to bring to its attention illegal content, especially that which falls within the scope of the apology of crimes against humanity and incitement to racial hatred”.

On the other side, some Twitter users are mocking the decision. Following the ruling, a search for the controversial hashtag revealed comments such as, “This tweet is a hate crime”, and “Type #UnBonJuif, just to see if we’ll get taken to court”.

Twitter itself is a strong advocate for free speech, and has a policy of not divulging the identity of its users unless it has been ordered to do so by a United States court. Because the company has no offices or personnel based in France that can be immediately implicated, it would not be surprising if it decided to fight the French ruling.

Ultimately, the competing values of opposing racism and upholding free speech place crosscutting economic pressures on global companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google. They all benefit financially from a wide-open internet that encourages more people to use their services, and to use them as frequently as possible. Because they are sensitive to most of its users’ condemnation of egregious racism, however, they have developed terms-of-service codes that allow them to shut down any speech deemed to cross the line of acceptability.

The return of the political

Governments are increasingly weighing in to influence internet freedom. In most cases, this is portrayed in purely negative terms. Through technical means, countries like Egypt and Syria have periodically and forcefully limited access to the internet for their citizens. 

“I applaud Twitter, Google, and other companies for not turning over information about their users without scrutiny or scepticism, and for their efforts to increase transparency about when and why they comply with government requests.

Google has an on-again, off-again approach to aiding China’s goal of blocking its citizens’ access to sensitive information. And, according to Google’s own transparency report, in the last six months of 2012, the company received over 21,000 requests for user data from national authorities, affecting over 33,000 users.

That number seems large. But the vast majority does not come from authoritarian regimes. It comes from liberal democracies, with over 8,000 requests made by the US government, and over 1,000 each from India, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Brazil in that order. After checking to make sure the requests complied with applicable laws, Google produced information in 66 percent of the cases, and in 88 percent of the US-based requests.

I applaud Twitter, Google, and other companies for not turning over information about their users without scrutiny or scepticism, and for their efforts to increase transparency about when and why they comply with government requests.

At the same time, liberal democratic governments make these requests because they believe the users are breaking national laws – laws that have been passed by legislators who represent the will of their citizens. Advocates of unlimited internet freedom in these countries stress the “liberal” at the expense of the “democratic” in an equation that requires thoughtful and careful calibration.

In the case pitting French authorities against Twitter, France’s laws reflect the balance between freedom of speech and the fight against racism that has been established through democratic processes. Its provisions are enforceable if an offending statement is made in print, on the air, or on a street corner. Extending the reach of these laws to the internet is a logical and defensible next step.

Erik Bleich is professor of Political Science and Director of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College and is the author of The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism, published by Oxford University Press.

Follow him on Twitter: @ErikBleich1