In February 2012, Twitter introduced a policy that enables individual tweets and accounts to be blocked on a country-by-country basis. If a government submits a court order to Twitter, asking for a tweet or account to be blocked, Twitter will comply. But the blocking will only occur in the country in question — to users throughout the rest of the world, the affected content will look no different.
This past October, Twitter enacted this policy for the first time to block tweets from the account of the German extreme right-wing group, Besseres Hannover (@hannoverticker). The German government has formally banned and seized the assets of the group, and some of its members have been charged with inciting racial hatred and creating a criminal organization. The group is also suspected to have sent threatening video messages to Aygul Ozkan, a German-born conservative politician of Turkish origin.
The group announced that it would challenge the blocking in court, but as things stand, Twitter’s move to block the group’s tweets was in accordance with local German law –- something Twitter needs to comply with in order to be able to operate in the country.
Twitter’s general counsel, Alex MacGillivray, announced the issue on Twitter and linked to a copy of the request from German police to block the @hannoverticker account in Germany. Consistent with Twitter’s previous statement regarding its use of technology and reluctance to withhold content, the Twitter account of Besseres Hannover was not deleted — it was merely made inaccessible in Germany.
The case presents a good example of how Twitter will use this new policy, especially in the face of international criticism, which Twitter faced when it first announced this shift. The “one country only” ban has the advantage of ensuring that tweets are not deleted outright.
This case alone does not, however, address all concerns regarding this policy. Germans who wish to get around the ban could probably go through virtual private networks (VPNs) – a technique commonly used in countries like China. At the same time, in the case of critical tweets of dissidents — as occurred during the Arab Spring – while the tweets would have been available internationally, they would not have been able to reach their countries’ local populations. While Twitter's policy is certainly more rights-protective than one that would block the tweets altogether (an alternative that would lead to far more censorship in specific countries), it still limits speech that may be important to local and national-level interests or movements.
This post is a modified version of a post that originally appeared on the Oxford-based research blog Free Speech Debate.