Twitter censors German neo-Nazi group

Twitter in January caused an uproar when the social network said it planned to implement a “ country-withheld content” policy. The company Thursday applied that policy for the first time in Germany.

German authorities in a letter to Twitter requested that a neo-Nazi group’s account be shut down. Germany in September banned the group, Besseres Hannover, and asked Twitter do the same.

Under the country-withheld content policy, Twitter said it would “withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time,” when asked by that country’s authorities. Nazi activity is outlawed in Germany, so to abide by German law, the company blocked access to the group’s account–but only in Germany. Citizens of other countries can still view the group’s Twitter stream.

“Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently,” tweeted Alex Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel.

Twitter posted the German authorities’ letter about the neo-Nazi account.

“This is about Twitter trying to operate globally and trying to figure out how to do that without having its staff members get arrested,” says Rebecca MacKinnon, author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Opposing views

Twitter critics argue that blocking one group’s account could lead the company down a slippery slope, but MacKinnon says complying with Germany’s request was more about being a law-abiding corporation than about censorship.

“What [Twitter is] trying to do is navigate this so they can operate around the world,” MacKinnon says. “It would be unfortunate if Germany decided that, in order to prevent a neo-Nazi group from planning a violent act, they had to block Twitter."

MacKinnon says other democracies don’t have America’s liberal free speech laws, and applying the First Amendment to countries that lack our Constitution doesn’t make much sense from an operations standpoint.

“Generally I believe that companies should follow the laws of countries they are physically in, if those countries are democratic, like Germany is," says Columbia University law professor Tim Wu. "I think Twitter is right to obey the orders of Germany.”

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