In Brief: In a blow to privacy and free speech rights, Twitter must reveal the names of posters who tweet offensive, anti-semitic or racist posts, rules a French court according to ZDNet today. Twitter must also create an easily accessible reporting system for all users to flag such content. The ruling could cast a chilling effect everywhere over social media users -- including Examiner.com users -- who voice unpopular or contentious views.
Twitter.com, founded in 2006 and boasting 140 million monthly active users worldwide, must release the identities of users who tweeted racist and offensive posts, ruled a French court according to DZNet today. The ruling is one of the most anti-American, anti-free speech decisions to date, potentially affecting privacy, freedom of speech and social media on the Internet.
The Background. Tweeters using the trending, anit-semitic hashtags #UnBonJuif ("A Good Jew") and #UnJuifMort ("A Dead Jew") messaged hateful comments in France last October. The posts included racial slurs and photos evoking the Holocaust, according to a reports filed yesterday by The Miami Herald and The Bellingham Herald.
Twitter deleted the tweets at the request of The Association of Jewish Students in France, but the Association then filed legal papers to force Twitter to reveal the real names of the users so that the Association could begin legal action against the posters under French law.
Twitter, a U.S. company familiar with robust free speech guarantees under the U.S. Constitution, resisted the Association's disclosure requests, arguing that it was a U.S. company bound only by U.S. laws, and therefore would divulge user information only at the order of a U.S. court. Twitter, speaking as an American company, said according the The Jewish Week:
Our first guiding principle, our Rock of Gibraltar is free speech. We have made a decision to defend free speech rights in a very broad context and that means making tough choices.
The uniquely American principle protecting free speech -- "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," -- was rejected by the French court. The court noted that Twitter's Terms of Service state "international users accept they must respect all local laws concerning online conduct and acceptable content." The Court therefore ruled that the Association's request for account details was "legitimate" and ordered Twitter to disclose the information.
Unlike Facebook and other social media platforms, Twitter does not have a mechanism for users to report content that incites violence or racial hatred. The Court therefore also ruled that Twitter must "roll out as part of its French platform" an "easily accessible and visible" notification system to help users flag offensive or illegal content.
Twitter has two weeks to disclose the account information, after which it will be fined €1,000 ($1,300) per day. However, as the Miami Herald notes, Twitter may not have to reveal the names because Twitter stores its user data in the United States, well beyond the reach of the French court.
The Fallout: The French court ruling could cast a chilling effect over the posting of unpopular or controversial views, as well as open the legal floodgates to sue Twitter and American social media users -- including Examiner.com users -- for money damages. In the United States, free speech -- including speech that is offensive and hateful -- is nearly sacrosanct, prompting former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to remark:
Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.
Nonetheless, trial attorney Stephane Lilti, the European lawyer for the Association who makes her living, in part, by suing defendants for offensive speech, hailed the Court's ruling as "an excellent decision, which we hope will bring an end to the feeling of impunity that fuels the worst excesses," as reported by Reuters yesterday.
Fortunately, American courts, such as the Iowa Supreme Court, have given protections against libel and other lawsuits to Internet news publishers beyond that given to average citizens, according to The Miami Herald on Monday. The robust American protections of free speech are expected protect Twitter which, according to NBC News last year, has been threatened with potentially meritless legal action by an Israeli law center "unless the social network cuts off access to groups, including Hezbollah, that are considered terrorist organizations by the United States."
NBC News further reports that:
The site [Twitter.com], in operation for five years, has been the frequent target of legal action by activist groups and celebrities seeking to stop or pull down information they don't like. It generally refuses unless the account in question misrepresents itself as belonging to someone else....
In January, Twitter successfully appealed the Justice Department's decision to keep under seal a subpoena for account records of a member of the Icelandic Parliament with ties to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.