#HateSpeech: Twitter's $50 Million Problem in France

With thousands of euros in fines accumulating daily and a new $50 million dollar lawsuit in France, Twitter is being forced to ask itself about the costs of unmitigated free speech. 

“A good Jew is a dead Jew #AGoodJew”

“How many Jews can fit in a Volkswagen? Two in the back, two in the front and 100 in the ashtray #AGoodJew”

Last October, #UnBonJuif (A Good Jew) began terrifying one of the world’s largest Jewish communities in 140 characters or less. Hate speech on Twitter is nothing new, but France’s Jewish community  already faced troubling increases in violent anti-Semitic attacks. Last year’s attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse killed three young Jewish children and a rabbi. In the year since the shooting anti-Semitic incidents have risen by 58%. A controversial new poll found that 26% of France’s over 500,000 Jewish citizens have considered leaving due to the recent rise in anti-Semitism. Synagogues in the United Kingdom are experience an influx of new Congregants prompting some synagogues to begin providing French language services. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has stated that French Jews feel “under siege.”  

Perhaps most troubling of all, a new report claims that far from eliciting sympathy, the Toulouse school house attack emboldened anti-Semites. The Service de Protection de la Communaute Juive reported that there were more than 90 anti-Semitic incidents in the 10 days that followed the shooting.

#UnBonJuif’s popularity was unnerving, rising as the third most popular Twitter trend in France. The Union for French Jewish Students complained directly to Twitter, asking for the company to delete the Tweets and to turn the names of those behind #UnBonJuif over the the French government. In France “public insults” based on religion, race, ethnicities, or nationality are a crime punishable by steep fines and prison time. When Twitter failed to respond, the UEFJ students decided to sue, and won. The Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance ordered Twitter to turn the names, and any other relevant data, over the to the French government within 15 days or face fines of 1,000 euros a day.

Twitter has a stated policy of not turning data over to governments unless compelled to by a U.S. Court, and did not turn over data or pay fines, though the company did agree to remove some of the offensive Tweets. Twitter has also agreed to withhold some content with its new Country Withheld Content policy, stemming from issues with a neo-Bazi group in Germany.

“We are currently reviewing the court’s decision and appreciate the opportunity to talk with the French government and community groups about Twitter’s policies and procedures,” a spokesman for Twitter said in an email. Twitter has maintained it will not turn over data unless it is ordered to by a U.S. court.

The UEFJ and the J’accuse Organization responded by suing Twitter for $50 million. “Twitter plays the card of indifference by not respecting the January 24th decision,” said UEFJ President Jonathon Hayoun of their decision to file a lawsuit.

“We are upping the stakes because Twitter has not been listening to the fact that they have to abide by French law,” added French lawyer Stephane Lilti, saying that the lawsuit demands that Twitter “wake up to the fact that protecting the authors of racist tweets is not acceptable in France.”

The two plaintiffs have publicly stated that if they win, the money will be donated to the National Shoah Memorial Fund. UEFJ seems to believe that holding Twitter’s feet to a fire of cash will bring action, but Twitter is acting out of clearly stated policies that are backed by a basic value — free speech at all cost.

An open platform that will only release data to the U.S. government when ordered to by the U.S. court system has some benefits. The ability to post anonymously protects people fighting against repressive governments and creates a safe space for them to communicate with the rest of the world. If, for example, students in Iran during the 2009-2010 election protests, had known that Twitter was willing and able to turn over data to their government on request, protestors would not have been able get out information quickly and mobilize. Twitter provided them with the ability to speak freely and broadcast the events around them, and their personal opinions on them, without fear of intrusion or reprisal from the government.

With 1,000 euros a day of fines accumulating and $50 million dollars on the line, Twitter has clearly shown it is willing to put its money where its mouth is when it comes protecting its stated values. While this is laudable, how much is free speech worth when the cost is the safety minority groups?

When the time arrives that our ideals threaten the welfare of an entire community, particularly a community in another country, it may be time to reevaluate those ideals. The ability to act with the knowledge that the Twitter will not release your identity to your government creates both freedom for students in Iran and impunity for racists in France. The question of "free speech" vs. "hate speech" should be a question decided by the people of France, not by Twitter. And the French goverment has clearly decided that hate speech laws are necessary to protect French people.

Twitter’s insistence on the purest, most extreme version of free speech has serious ramifications for minority groups. Twitter is providing a new tool for hate groups to get their message out in countries with anti-hate speech laws by providing anonymity and actively shielding them from prosecution. The most egregious part of Twitter’s protection of hate groups is that many European countries that have hate speech laws, like Germany, are responding to serious, long standing threats to their minority populations. Twitter should be able to create a nuanced policy that unmasks those intimidating the French Jewish community and breaking French law but protects anti-government protesters under repressive regimes.

The consequences of free speech are real, and when a country chooses to put the safety of its minority communities first that should be respected. This holds particularly  true when those trumpeting the ideals are insulated from the costs — discrimination, verbal and physical harassment and, in extreme cases like the Toulouse shooting, loss of life. Twitter should turn over the names and cooperate with democratic countries seeking to prosecute hate speech laws.

Only those living with the consequences of unmitigated free speech should determine if the cost is too high. By trying to make that determination for French Jews, Twitter may pay dearly.