The Internet is abuzz with the news that Twitter censored its first user on the 18th of this month. The company notified us, the moths to their flame, with a tweet that users in Germany would no longer be able to access tweets produced by @hannoverticker handle (which is run by a German neo-Nazi group). The requisite rant about “Big Brother” and the end of free speech ensued with editorials in major media outlets throughout the world criticizing the potential dangers of this action. But before you work yourself into a tizzy, ask yourself the critical question: What does this actually mean for me and other Twitter users? Probably nothing. Here’s why.
First, this is not a “freedom of speech” issue in the way some commentators are framing it. Lest we forget, Twitter, Inc. is a corporation. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but freedom of speech protection in the Constitution only applies to restrictions set by the government and agents of the government. Being blocked from posting an opinion on the Internet by a private entity is very different from a police state limiting free speech through force. This is not a case of the Stazi lurking behind the door, but rather of a corporation limiting access to hate speech (not a more socially useful type of speech like political protest or religious expression) at the request of a government.
Second, this is being done in accordance with a long-standing law in Germany. Nazi symbolism and speech have been banned in the German “Strafgesetzbuch” (criminal code) since the fall of the Third Reich. This includes everything from Nazi paraphernalia to white-power music. I think we can all understand the reasonableness of this law considering the historical reality in Germany. I think we can also recognize that Germany is not a dystopia grounded in human oppression despite the long history of strict enforcement of this law. Although this might not conform with the American ideal of free speech, I think most people would have a hard time arguing that it is an inappropriate impingement on freedom in the German context. In a practical and complicated world, I would assert that we have to be able to see the difference between reasonable limitations, like this one, and the corrosion of freedoms. Nuance is critical to our ability to understand and balance rights in the modern world.
Commentators have noted the possibility that this is the first step along a slippery slope for Twitter. They fear that oppressive governments will be able to petition Twitter to ban dissident users. Before we let ourselves be swayed by this argument, we have to recognize that the protection of any right does not slide on a scale with the only positions being “absolutely free” and “non-existent.” As long as protections like the review of consumers in the market exist, then the first step from absolute freedom will not mean an inescapable slide into repression. The protection of rights is about finding the right shade of grey into which it should fall and there is no indication that Twitter intends to further this policy to inappropriate limitations.
Third, even if Twitter did take censorship too far and begin to limit desirable dissidence, it would not mean the end of Internet protest in 140 characters or less. Although this move by Twitter is outside of the review of our courts, it is well within the sphere of consumer review. In the constantly shifting and notoriously unstable (remember Foursquare?) world of social media, Twitter is not a communication goliath incapable of being toppled. If Twitter chooses to conform to the limitations on speech that exist across the globe, the market will support a challenger that does not participate in censorship. It would only be a matter of time until a challenger attacked Twitter’s market share and users who disagreed with censorship policies would be able to support the challenger.
For these reasons, I don’t think blocking Germans from reading tweets by @hannoverticker is the sign of impending doom. I think we still find ourselves well within the realm of reasonableness. If they turn identities of users over to the police state or come for the protestors and the dissidents I will change my mind, but I don’t think we are any closer to that than we were at the beginning of the month. If you disagree with me, then please continue to decry this censorship as evidence of the slow decay of society into an Orwellian dystopia. … For now you’re still free to tweet about it.
Meredith Jewitt is a first-year law student and the former editorial page editor of The Chronicle. Her column runs every other Monday. You can follow Meredith on Twitter @mljewitt.