Twitter has complied with a request by police in Hannover, Germany to block the Twitter account of the neo-Nazi group Besseres-Hannover (Better Hannover) within Germany. The account is still accessible outside the country.
According to the BBC, "It is the first time the social networking site has implemented its local censorship policy, which came into force in January." Announcing the move, the company's general counsel, Alex MacGillivray, tweeted, "Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently."
Twitter has teamed with the organization Chilling Effects to publicize all cease-and-desist requests it is sent, the vast majority of which are copyright related requests by media companies. The German police letter states that Besseres-Hannover "is disbanded, its assets are seized and all its accounts in social networks have to be closed immediately."
Germany's anti-Nazi laws are often the go-to example of censorship laws in a western democracy. There are good arguments to be made against the wisdom and effectiveness of these laws -- see Michael Moynihan for one --but there's not likely to be a huge international uproar over Besseres-Hannover.
But it seems likely we many see some more interesting test cases soon. For instance, a number of groups on the State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organizations list have a presence on Twitter, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Somalia's al Shabab. There are also a few accounts associated with the Afghan Taliban, which openly celebrate attacks on NATO troops. Muhammed al-Zawahri, the Egypt-based brother of al Qaeda's current leader, also has an account, which he used to help call for last month's demonstrations at the U.S. embassy.
In October, several members of congress wrote a letter to the FBI requesting that the bureau ask Twitter to block the accounts of terrorist groups. So far, the bureau hasn't taken any such action. Perhaps, since luring gullible extremists into face terror operations over the internet seems to be the FBI's most successful counterterrorism strategy these days, they feel that the extremist web's intelligence value outweighs its potential to be used as a recruiting tool. But that mindset could change -- particularly under a new administration -- so it's not inconceivable that the U.S. could ask for these accounts to be removed.
Not to mention the fact that a country-specific request from the Afghan or Somali government to block the account of a group dedicated to its violent overthrow would certainly seem as reasonable a blocking a fairly obscure German far-right group.
Things could get more complicated still if authoritarian governments try to use the "criminal investigation" precedent. For instance, Russian dissident blogger Alexey Navalny is currently facing what seem like blatantly political embezzlement charges. Could the Russian state request that his popular Twitter account be blocked in Russia while he's under investigation?
Twitter's entering tricky political waters here, and there are no perfect solutions for how to handle this. But as Susan Benesch and Rebecca MacKinnon recently argued when discussing Google's censorship dilemmas, clarity and consistency in how the policy is implemented will be key.
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