France Pressures Twitter to Address Rise in Hate-Speech Hashtags

New Twitter Logo - H 2012

New Twitter Logo - H 2012

After homophobic, racist and anti-semitic hashtags trended in the country in recent months, the micro-blogging site faces calls to hand over user information.

PARIS - Twitter has come under pressure in France to address a recent increase in hashtags that have been tied to homophobic, racist and anti-semitic messages.

With the government, anti-discrimination groups and other activists stepping up legal and social pressure, some have pushed for the micro-blogging site to reveal the user information of those behind such hashtags.

On Tuesday, the Union of Jewish Students (UEJF) asked a district court here to force the U.S.-based social site to hand over the personal information of up to 60 users who made incendiary comments under the hashtag #AGoodJew. The group, backed by four other influential anti-discrimination organizations, wants posters to be prosecuted under French anti-hate-speech laws.

After the French hashtag became a top-trending topic for several days in October, Twitter agreed to remove offensive messages such as “#AGoodJew is a dead Jew” to avoid further legal action, but refused to reveal the names and other details of the authors. 

At a hearing this week, the San Francisco-based company argued that user data is collected in California and therefore is not subject to French law and that it cannot divulge such information without approval from a U.S. court.

The case highlights the differences between the wide-ranging freedom-of-speech protections in the U.S. and European laws, including French ones, that prohibit racist and discriminatory comments, just as Twitter is experiencing explosive growth in France. It was not the first Twitter free-speech controversy in the country, though.

Late last year, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, women’s minister and spokeswoman for the government of French President Francois Hollande, called on Twitter to comply with the country's laws after top trending topics #IfMySonWasGay and #IfMyDaughterBroughtHomeABlack resulted in an onslaught of  homophobic and racist messages just before Christmas.

“Our legal tradition must be respected, as it is part of our human rights," she said. "Twitter should find solutions so that messages sent from our country, in our language, and destined for our citizens do not violate the principles we have set.” She suggested the company put into place alerts and security measures that would stop hate speech from spreading via the site within France.

Vallaud-Belkacem hoped for a meeting with Twitter executives on Monday, but had to settle for phone conversations due to a lack of company representatives in France.

Twitter established a legal presence in France in December -- though as a subsidiary of its Irish operations for tax purposes -- and announced plans to open a full advertising and sales office in Paris in the spring. There are about 5.5 million registered Twitter handles in France, an increase of 53 percent for the year 2012, according to data mentioned in French media reports.
A Paris court decision in the personal user data case is expected on Jan. 24.

On Tuesday, France's digital economy minister Fleur Pellerin said that the government is in “permanent” discussions with Twitter. In an interview with TV news channel LCI, she added: “It is in their interest to adapt to the legal, philosophical and ethical culture of the countries in which they seek to develop. They’re open to discussion.”

Twitter has previously complied with a request from the German government to block the account of a neo-Nazi group within its borders. 

Last January, Twitter amended its policy to allow country-specific removal if required to do so by law. “As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression,” the company wrote back then on its blog. “[Some], for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.”  However, the company made it clear that it would resist blanket removal or filtering and would act on a case-by-case basis when requested through legal channels.

Some observers say, though, that it may be impossible to keep up with how quickly things can change in 140 characters or less. After Twitter removed #AGoodJew in France, #ADeadJew took its place. And early this month, just as Vallaud-Belkacem’s push for action became a topic of media coverage here, #IfIWereANazi became the top-trending topic.