Twitter hands over data to unmask racist users

Twitter hands over data to unmask racist users

Twitter bird. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.Twitter, ordered by a Paris court in January to unmask posters of racist content on its French service, has given up its fight and handed it over.

The case goes back to October, when Le Monde published this collection of anti-semitic jokes on Twitter, after the tag #UnBonJuif (a good Jew) started to make waves.

Other Twitter tags associated with hate speech that made the rounds in France around the same time included #SiMonFilsEstGay (if my son is gay) and #SiMaFilleRamèneUnNoir (if my daughter brings home a black guy).

The court had ordered Twitter to hand over data to identify the hate speech posters in response to a request from the French Jewish students’ union (UEJF), among others.

Twitter, which is well-known for its resistance to handing over identifying information, has been fighting the court order on the grounds that it’s a US company and thereby subject to the country’s laws regarding freedom of speech.

If the company were to unmask its users, it argued, it should only do so in compliance with an order from a US judge.

The French courts didn’t buy it.

Twitter lost an appeal in mid-June, according to the BBC, and has now settled the case with those who started the legal action.

As it is, Twitter has a hodgepodge of laws to respect when it comes to hate speech.

In the US, such speech is protected by the First Amendment unless it incites violence.

In countries including France and Germany, however, laws ban hate speech.
The conundrum of having to abide by such disparate laws led Twitter to announce in January 2012 that it would block tweets whose content was restricted by certain countries.

Blocking content is one thing, but handing over details to law enforcement is another entirely, and it is this stripping away of privacy that Twitter has long resisted.

France is not the first to force Twitter to comply with its demands to identify users, and it won’t be the last.

But as the New York Times pointed out back when the PRISM surveillance news broke in early June, Twitter still stands head and shoulders above its big internet brothers when it comes to attempting to shield user privacy.

According to the NYT, Twitter complied with government requests for data on individuals 69 percent of the time in the second half of 2012.

In comparison, Google complied with 88 percent of government requests for data in the same period.

Twitter doesn’t make it easy for government to get at its users’ data. It doesn’t put requested data on a special file server that’s continuously updated.

It doesn’t make it clean, or easy, or routine, to hand over users’ data.

Should Twitter users who post vile content be allowed to hide behind the cowards’ cloak of anonymity?

I’m divided on that, given my respect for the First Amendment vs. my disgust at anti-semitic, racist or misogynistic content.

But regardless of what type of schmucks Twitter fights for, at the end of the day, I’m grateful that it fights so hard to protect users’ privacy.

Are you?

Image of bird courtesy of Shutterstock.