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  • partly cloudy

    In Precedent-Setting Move, Twitter Blocks Tweets On Country-Specific Basis

    Adam Holland, October 19, 2012

    Abstract: For the first time since they announced their ability to do so in January of 2012, Twitter has blocked access to a Twitter user's tweets on a country-specific basis.
    As of Thursday October 18, 2012, Twitter users in Germany will not be able to view the tweets from the far right-wing organization "Besseres Hannover".
    Twitter's move to block Besseres Hannover comes at the request of the German government, who forced the group to disband, and sought, among other goals, the complete closure of all of the group's social media accounts.

    As anyone familiar with the Internet’s take-down notice ecology is no doubt now aware, Twitter yesterday announced its first ever “country-specific” blocking of a user’s Tweets, blocking the Twitter account of a German neo-Nazi group, “Besseres Hannover” but critically only in Germany. The account’s tweets remains available for viewing everywhere else.

    Twitter, like every other internet content publisher with an international presence and an international user community, has been wrestling with how to best negotiate the thicket of different legal regimes in the midst of which it must do business. Most notable, the issues surrounding censorship have often conflicted with local laws against hate speech or specific types of content.
    As just one example, the “Innocence of Muslims” video and the ensuing controversy brought this issue into sharp relief. Many individuals and governments (including the USA’s) wanted the video taken down, but depending on the location, there was no legal justification to do so, as well strong free-speech related reasons to not do so.

    As Twitter puts it, “"With hundreds of millions of Tweets posted every day around the world, our goal is to respect our users' expression, while also taking into consideration applicable local laws."

    In January, 2012 Twitter announced that as part of its ongoing efforts to address controversies like this in as nuanced a way as possible, it would henceforth be able to block access to tweets on a country-by country basis. Further, Twitter expanded its existing partnership with Chilling Effects so that the notices it received would be easier to find. Twitter has not used this new tool until now, when it received this takedown notice from the German government . The organization in question, Besseres Hannover, was banned by the Ministry of the Interior of the State of Lower-Saxony, an action which included the closing of all of its social media accounts. Illustrating the pitfalls of a successful policy on these matters, Twitter’s actions have angered some free speech advocates, but are not all that the German government desired.

    Reactions to the move have been mixed. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Eva Galperin said "I will not go so far as to call the policy good, but they're attempting to do the least damage" because Twitter's blocking tool only applies to users in one country." The Anti-Defamation League, a frequent critic of Twitter , is reported to have issued guarded praise while others wondered what the effect of such a policy would have been on the “Arab Spring” movement, had it been in place at the time. Twitter General Counsel Alex MacGillivray's tweeted response was that Twitter never wants to withold content, but that when Twitter were in the position of having to do so, it was best to have narrowly tailored tools available.

    Controversy aside, Chilling Effects is pleased to be able to provide the public with access to this notice and to be in the vanguard of increased efforts to promote and practice transparency in this space, so that any discussion about online censorship is a fully informed one.

    UPDATE 10/25/2012 See here for some follow-up commentary and an interesting discussion of the issues surrounding geolocation as a filtering technique.


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