By Michelle Sohn – Edited by Katie Mullen
Last week, Twitter, traditionally a stalwart opponent of government surveillance requests, released to French prosecutors the identities of users who had tweeted anti-Semitic comments in violation of France’s hate speech laws. The social media giant’s capitulation follows a series of legal battles over the issue, including a $50 million lawsuit for failing to provide the information.
Boing Boing provides a brief overview of the controversy. The New York Times offers a more thorough analysis, noting that Twitter’s legal battles and its final acquiescence to the French government reveal the balancing act Silicon Valley companies must often perform in championing free speech while complying with various countries’ laws. Ars Technica summarizes the hate speech incident and legal arguments both sides made.
The controversy stems from the use of the hashtag #unbonjuif — “a good Jew” — which became the third most popular tag on Twitter in October 2012. Derogatory and anti-Semitic statements often accompanied the hashtag. The Union of French Jewish Students (“UEJF”) filed suit to force Twitter to identify the users posting such statements so that French authorities could prosecute them for violating hate speech laws. Twitter argued that, because it was a United States-based company, it was protected by First Amendment guarantees. In January of this year, a French court ruled in favor of UEJF and gave Twitter two weeks to release the data and coordinate a system that would alert the police of similar posts. When, by March, Twitter had refused to comply, the UEJF sued Twitter for $50 million. Last week, Twitter announced that it has finally given the requested data to French prosecutors. According to the New York Times, Twitter’s statement on the matter emphasized that the data had been released to law enforcement officials “in response to a valid legal request,” and not just at the request of a private organization such as the UEJF.
Twitter’s release of data to French authorities comes just over a month after the Guardian’s reports on top-secret U.S. government programs aimed at collecting data from consumers’ phone records and Internet use. The revelations renewed the debate pitting the value of liberty and privacy against the necessity for security. Twitter’s acquiescence has significant implications both for the company and its users. As the New York Times notes, Twitter’s legal clashes with foreign governments may stymie its international expansion. For users, the case is a reminder that no social network or platform is exempt from government scrutiny.