Twitter hands over data to unmask racist users

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy, Twitter

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.

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8 Responses to Twitter hands over data to unmask racist users

  1. Sam Lowe · 813 days ago

    While I detest all anti Semitic and/or racial epithets, indeed, name calling of any kind, as an American, who's freedom of speech is protected by our Constitution, I, of course find the law under which Twitter was forced to disclose the names of its subscribers, even worse.

    But that's my Yankee bias, developed as a child raised in a small New England town, where the notion that, absent physical assault, words alone could provoke a criminal investigation or prosecution was religiously rejected.

  2. Guy · 813 days ago

    I don't see the big deal. If you trade in Europe, you have to respect European law. There's nothing in the world to stop Twitter geographically filtering it's service based on IP. Why should they get to offer their services to Europeans and then "hide behind a cloak" of American law?

    • The main issue here is that Twitter has already complied with the geographic filtering part, and I think most people agree that that's a good idea.

      However, complying with requests for PII is another kettle of fish; let's say someone in Germany says something that goes against a law in Zambia -- should the Zambian government be allowed access to the PII related to the posts? Should twitter be allowed to tell them "This was not posted by someone in your country"? What about retweets etc?

      The problem with requests for PII is that it has the potential to break the laws for one country if NOT provided and break the laws of another country if it IS provided. So far, (as far as we know) this hasn't become a big issue for many companies (Google had an issue in China that resulted in being removed, and I believe Yahoo had one incident as well) -- but I'm sure we'll see more and more cases where international companies have to decide which jurisdiction's laws to keep and which to break.

      • Guy · 811 days ago

        Angelo does actually have a point. There has to be a difference between freedom of speach and freedom of anonymity. That's really all the French were asking for, no? Since racist speach is already illegal in France, discovering the nationality of the speakers merely gives France visibility as to whether a crime was in fact commited on French soil. If it turned out to have been posted by a Canadian or a Maurition, presumably, France would leave them alone.

  3. As disgusting as racist speech may be, it is still only speech, and therefor doesn't rise to the level that requires any investigation or prosecution. Credible threats of death of harm, on the other hand, cross the line.

  4. Robbie · 813 days ago

    sometimes it feels like most americans think that we do not have freedom of speech in europe. while some parts of eastern europe lag a little behind maybe, the net-freedom of speech is actually greater than in america where you can easily be sued to oblivion for nothing. i think the logic here should be: if you use freedom of speech to propagate opinions which attack the freedom of others in the community, be it race or sexuality, then you should be exposed as the vile and pathetic little creep you are.

  5. vwiswell · 813 days ago

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

    While I appreciate your disgust for misogynistic content, "#SiMonFilsEstGay" might suggest that you add homophobic to your list.

  6. Angelo · 812 days ago

    Did early Americans practice their freedom of speech whilst wearing brown paper bags over their heads? The spirit of the first amendment must have been written to protect righteous debate and discussion. I don't suppose the amendment was passed to protect libel and malicious speech.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.