Twitter Censors Users for the First Time

The Atlantic
Twitter Censors Users for the First Time
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Twitter Censors Users for the First Time

For the first time ever, Twitter censored a controversial account at the request of local government earlier this week. It was run by neo-Nazis. The ban, which is the first of its kind under a relatively new Twitter policy that gives the company "the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country -- while keeping it available in the rest of the world." As such, the ban is only effective in Germany, however. The rest of the world is free to follow the bigots.

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We're not sure what to think about this one. On one hand, we want to give Twitter a high five for not giving neo-Nazis another forum to spread hatred. Neo-Nazis are really awful! This particular group, Besseres Hannover or @hannoverticker, sparked a wildfire of complaints from other readers for their racist, hateful and generally unpleasant banter on the microblogging network. According to the Financial Times, "it distributed racist materials in schools, sent abusive video messages to officials and threatened physical violence against immigrants." Who likes encouraging school children to be racists and promoting xenophobic violence amongst the masses? Nobody does, because that's hateful and horrible. Which is exactly why the Ministry of the Interior in Lower Saxony banned the group, and local law enforcement pressed Twitter to close the organization's Twitter account.

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The issue isn't so simple for free speech advocates. Twitter has long been a haven for dissidents, activists and freedom fighters, the vast majority of whom are not neo-Nazis. However, this particular group fit all the qualifications that Twitter laid out when it warned in January that it might "restrict certain types of content" in "countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression ... such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content." Indeed, Besseres Hannover had been banned by local law enforcement agencies, who also asked Twitter to restrict access to the account. "We announced the ability to withhold content back in Jan. We're using it now for the first time re: a group deemed illegal in Germany," said Twitter's general counsel, Alex MacGillivray, appropriately, in a tweet. His previous tweet explained, "Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently." The tweet before that provided this beautiful photo of a sunset in San Francisco, but that's not really relevant, is it?

So what'll the free speech advocates think of all this? They're probably upset, huh? Well. It's unclear. Like Twitter admitted, this is the first time they've enforced their new local censorship measures, and it happened nearly a year after they announced the idea. Is it such a big deal if Twitter censors one account in one country once a year? What if it's a neo-Nazi organization bent on spreading hatred and bigotry? That doesn't sound so bad, especially since it's the example Twitter provided in its blog post explaining the new feature that allows them to censor accounts.

But what if it's somebody else? What if it's a French account that's begging for a crackdown on anti-Semitism in the Parisian suburbs or an American account that's hyper critical of the government's plans to thwart terrorist attacks? Surely, local government might become impatient with such Twitter accounts and could very well ask Twitter to censor it. In the past, censorship is something that wasn't in Twitter's playbook. Now, that's no longer true.

We'll have to wait and see how Twitter puts this policy into play in the future. In the meantime, we doubt many Germans are sorry that neo-Nazis have to try a little harder to get their message heard. 

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