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France Orders Twitter to Identify Users Posting Hate Speech

BY Julia Wetherell | Friday, January 25 2013

Twitter has been ordered to provide identifying information for French users participating in racist and anti-Semitic discourse on the social network. The ruling was handed down Thursday by a Paris court in response to a lawsuit brought on by several rights groups. The American company,which maintains a policy of not screening content posted by its users, has yet to articulate its response.

Hate speech is criminalized in France under strict anti-discrimination legislation developed over the decades following the Second World War; as in several European nations, denial of the holocaust or other genocidal events is illegal. The incident that prompted the recent lawsuit was a spate of anti-Semitic messages posted by anonymous users to the French Twittersphere in October; there were a number of anti-Muslim tweets as well, both strains connected to March 2012 shootings in Toulouse and Montauban, where a Jewish day school was targeted by a young French-Algerian alleging to be a member of al-Qaeda.

Closely following a block placed on the feed of a German neo-Nazi group, Twitter removed the French tweets in October in compliance with its country-withheld content policy, under which it will censor flagged messages that violate the laws of their country of origin. The request to identify the French citizens behind the hate speech — in order to try and prosecute them — brings up questions of the country’s jurisdiction over an American corporation. Twitter officially will only surrender user information in response to a United States court order or search warrant; its law enforcement guidelines state that it will respond to foreign parties requesting such information if served through the proper US channels.

The French court has allotted 15 days for the users to be identified; otherwise Twitter will be subject to a fine of 1,000 euros per day they remain anonymous. As data increasingly shifts to the cloud, nominally beholden to the laws of one country but accessible throughout the world, controversy like this will continue to raise the question of whose right — or responsibility — it is to govern the Internet.

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