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A battle to unmask Twitter users

French court tells Twitter to identify people who had posted anti-Semitic and racist entries on the social network
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First Published: Fri, Jan 25 2013. 11 26 PM IST
Twitter has already removed some of the content at issue from its site in France, in keeping with company policy to remove posts in countries where they violate the law. Photo: AFP
Twitter has already removed some of the content at issue from its site in France, in keeping with company policy to remove posts in countries where they violate the law. Photo: AFP
Paris/San Francisco: A French court Thursday told Twitter to identify people who had posted anti-Semitic and racist entries on the social network. Twitter is not sure it will comply. And the case is yet another dust-up in the struggle over speech on the Internet, and which countries’ laws prevail.
The court order came in a lawsuit brought by French groups who said the Twitter postings, which were made under pseudonyms, broke French law against racist speech. Twitter has said that under its own rules, it does not divulge the identity of users except in response to a valid court order in the US, where its data is stored.
Twitter has already removed some of the content at issue from its site in France, in keeping with company policy to remove posts in countries where they violate the law.
On Thursday, Twitter said in a brief statement that it would review its legal options after the French ruling; officials at the company's San Francisco headquarters did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
It remains unclear whether French prosecutors will press their case across the Atlantic and force Twitter's hand in a US court under a time-consuming process detailed in a so-called mutual legal assistance treaty.
The case revolves around the broad question of which country’s laws have jurisdiction over content on the Internet. This question has become increasingly complicated as vast amounts of information are stored in sprawling data centres, known as the cloud, that are accessible over the Internet anywhere, any time.
“It is a big deal because it shows the conflict between laws in France and laws in the US and how difficult it can be for companies doing business around the world,” said Francoise Gilbert, a French lawyer who represents Silicon Valley companies in courts on both continents.
In this case, the jurisdictional issue has an additional wrinkle because Twitter does not have an office in France and does not face the prosecution of its employees in the country, a problem that other Web companies, such as Facebook and Google, have faced elsewhere.
Twitter is popular in France, nonetheless. It is available to anyone with an Internet connection and sells ads on its site here. This could embolden French authorities to try to apply its laws to the service. With 200 million users, most of them outside the US, Twitter has confronted these conundrums over hate speech and free expression before, especially in Europe.
In October, at the request of the German government, Twitter blocked users in Germany from accessing the account of a neo-Nazi group banned there. It was the first time Twitter acted on a policy known as “country-withheld content”, announced last January, in which it agreed to block an account at the request of a government.
In 2011, British authorities went to court in California to extract information about a Twitter user who went by the pseudonym Mr. Monkey and was accused of defaming members of a British town council. The firm complied.
Twitter says in its online help centre that foreign law enforcement agencies can seek user data through what is known as a “mutual legal assistance treaty”.
“It is our policy to respond to such US court-ordered requests when properly served,” the company says on the site.
But Twitter is not the only Web company facing government requests for personal data.
Google said this week that it received more than 21,000 requests in the past six months. More than 8,000 of the requests were from the US, followed by India, France, Germany and Britain.
Twitter, though, has sought to cast itself as a special defender of free speech, sometimes describing it as a competitive advantage.
On occasion, it has fought unsuccessful battles with US prosecutors seeking to extract data on Twitter users.
The French case is also part of a brewing fight between the US and Europe over the data controlled by US Web companies and stored in the cloud.
European lawmakers worry about US companies sharing data about Europeans with the US government under US laws that authorize surveillance on foreign citizens.
This case flips that objection on its head, with European authorities seeking information on its citizens from a US company.
Chris Wolf, a US lawyer who was in Brussels this week at a conference debating European data protection laws, said it was proving difficult to interpret jurisdiction laws in the digital age.
He offered a paper analogy. If French authorities sought access to files stored in a US company's offices in Paris, they could physically get their hands on the material and use it in court.
He said “the physical presence of a thing or a person” has always been a major factor in determining which government’s rules apply. “The power to access data makes physical location of evidence irrelevant,” he said.
The French case was prompted by a spate of anti-Semitic writing on Twitter late last year, including hashtags, or topical themes, like “a good Jew is a dead Jew”. There were also jokes about the Holocaust and comments denigrating Muslims. Holocaust denial is a crime in France, and the country has strict laws against hate speech.
Organizations such as the French Union of Jewish Students and SOS Racisme filed the suit, seeking to identify those responsible for the accounts.
The court said Twitter should provide “data in its possession that could permit the identification of anyone who has contributed to the creation of manifestly illegal tweets”.
The court stopped short of recommending screening but said Twitter should “set up, within the framework of its French platform, an easily accessible and visible system enabling anyone to bring to its attention illegal content, especially that which falls within the scope of the apology of crimes against humanity and incitement to racial hatred”.
“The French justice system has made a historic decision today,” said Jonathan Hayoun, its president, in a statement. “It reminds victims of racism and anti-Semitism that they are not alone and that French law, which protects them, should apply everywhere, including Twitter.”
The sensitivity of the issue in France was heightened by the killing of seven people, including four Jews, in southern France last March by Mohammad Merah, who claimed to be acting for al-Qaida. Since then, Jewish groups say, anti-Semitic material, including Twitter feeds appearing to be tributes to Merah, have proliferated.
The government has scheduled a meeting between company officials and advocacy groups that are pressing Twitter to be tougher on hate speech, said a government spokeswoman, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.
©2013/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Fri, Jan 25 2013. 11 26 PM IST
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