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Twitter And Censorship: What Does Freedom Of Speech Mean In The Social Media Age?
October 19, 2012
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Over the last few days, lots of stories have broken around the world about Twitter, censorship and the law.

Twitter itself has taken the unprecedented step of blocking an account in Germany over neo-Nazi comments, as well as agreeing to remove a series of anti-Semitic Tweets coming from France today.

Their actions have led to lots of commentary online.

Was Twitter Right To Censor Neo-Nazi Account In Germany?

William Oremus at Slate says "it's hard to get too outraged about" Twitter's decision to use its country-specific censorship tool, since it's so easy to get around it: German users can just change their country setting to "worldwide" if they want to read the Tweets in question.

On The Atlantic Wire, Adam Clark Estes wonders about where this kind of selective censorship might lead: what if this were an American account that was "hyper critical of the government's plans to thwart terrorist attacks?" It's possible, Estes argues, that Twitter might cooperate with authorities to shut it down.

His conclusion? "We'll have to wait and see how Twitter puts this policy into play in the future."

Meanwhile, Jezebel's Laura Beck says that Twitter is a "private, for-profit company", meaning it can "do whatever the hell it wants." She also says "the company's proven that it's willing to comply with governments when pushed, so we shouldn't be all that surprised."

Sports And Social Media: Ashley Cole And Khalif Mitchell

Twitter's also in the news because of the legal ramifications of comments made by a couple of high-profile sports stars on the site.

Earlier this week, a couple of sports figures wound up in hot water over Tweets from their accounts: Khalif Mitchell of the BC Lions Tweeted a racial slur, while Chelsea defender Ashley Cole was fined $145,000 for comments he made about the Football Association.

Writing about Ashley Cole and fellow Chelsea player Ryan Bertrand, who also got into trouble over comments he made on Twitter this week, Lucas Howe of 'The Sport Review' suggests that the players should be held to higher standards than non-footballers.

"Cole and Bertrand are both representatives for their nation, and with this comes the responsibility to act appropriately in the public domain."

He also points out that as superstar players, "their Twitter stock is particularly valuable," so they probably won't shut down their accounts. But he does think their agents and PR teams "need to take a more hands-on approach to dealing with how their clients use social media."

Tried By The State For Tweets: Fazil Say And Four Bahrainians

In two other high-profile cases, people are facing legal trials over comments made on Twitter. Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say will face a trial in Turkey for allegedly "insulting Islam" on his Twitter account, while four unidentified men in Bahrain are on trial for defaming the King of that country.

This is not the first time Bahrain has prosecuted someone for comments made on Twitter, and human rights groups have spoken out about the practice.

The UNHCR sent a letter to the Bahraini government in May on behalf of 100 organizations calling for an end to the country's "assault on freedom speech" and asking the government to "release all human rights defenders, Twitter activists and bloggers."

And as for the Fazil Say case in Turkey, Marc Champion wrote an opinion piece for Bloomberg titled "Note to Turkey: Pianist's Tweets Are Crass, Not Criminal." Champion argues that Say's comments on Twitter, while not "in the best of taste," were not intended to "incite public hatred."

He calls on Turkey's government to "get rid of the 'insult' clauses in the penal code" under which Say was charged.

If you haven't been following the stories, here's a quick rundown of what happened in each case:

Twitter Blocks German Neo-Nazi Group, Removes Anti-Semitic Tweets In France

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Yesterday Twitter blocked an account connected to a neo-Nazi group in Germany, so that no one inside Germany could access Tweets from the user.

Today, the company has agreed to remove a flood of anti-Semitic Tweets that are being sent out in France, with the hashtag #unbonjuif (#agoodjew). Like the neo-Nazi decision, Twitter is bowing to legal pressure.

In France, the Union of Jewish Students of France (UEJF) was planning to get a court injunction to force Twitter to remove the offensive Tweets. Twitter's senior management met with UEJF representatives and decided to remove the posts voluntarily.

Turkish Pianist and Composer Fazil Say Tried in Turkey For "Insulting Islam" on Twitter

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In Turkey, internationally known pianist and composer Fazil Say is on trial for comments he made on Twitter.

One of the comments is from April, when Say Tweeted a joke about a call to prayer that lasted only 22 seconds: "Why such haste? Have you got a mistress waiting or a Raki on the table?" Raki is a traditional Turkish alcoholic drink.

Islam forbids alcohol, and many Islamists consider the Tweet unacceptable.

Another Tweet says "I am not sure if you have also realized it, but if there's a louse, a non-entity, a lowlife, a thief or a fool, it's always an Islamist."

Turkey has repeatedly prosecuted its artists and writers. Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk was prosecuted for "insulting Turkish identity" over comments he made about the mass killings of Armenians in the early part of the 20th century.

Footballer Ashley Cole Fined $145,000 For Comments About Football Association

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English soccer player Ashley Cole got himself into trouble to the tune of a $145,000 fine after he called the Football Association (FA) "a bunch of t***ts."

The Tweet is connected to the controversial case of John Terry, a Chelsea player who is accused of using racial abuse against Anton Ferdinand, a Queens Park Rangers player who is black. Cole gave evidence in at Terry's trial defending him over the allegations.
Cole sent the Tweet after an independent regulatory commission of the FA cast doubt on his evidence.

He apologized via his solicitor the day the Tweet was sent, and later apologized in person to the FA chairman, David Bernstein, but the charge was still brought against Cole.

Four People on Trial For Defaming the King of Bahrain on Twitter

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Fazil Say isn't the only one facing legal proceedings over comments made on Twitter. Four people accused of defaming the King of Bahrain are facing a trial before the criminal court.

The accused men haven't been identified by name, but they have been interrogated and charged with slandering King Hamad bi Isa Al Khalifa. According to Bahrain's public prosecutor Ahmad Bucheeri, "they will be held in custody for seven days and will face an urgent trial before the criminal court."

In his statement, Bucheeri said that Bahrain's constituition guaranteed freedom of opinion and expression, but added "this freedom should not clash with the social precents and traditions." There's no word on what the Tweets in question actually said.

CFL Player Khalif Mitchell Uses Racist Slur on Twitter

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Khalif Mitchell, a defensive lineman for the BC Lions, Tweeted a racial slur on Tuesday, responding to a question about the U.S. presidential debate. "Both of them hide money with the C***ks," he wrote.

The CFL imposed a fine on Mitchell for violating the league's social media policy. Mitchell, who majored in communications, deleted the Tweet and issued an apology to reporters: "I want to apologize. I made a comment. It wasn't right," he said in a 40-second meeting with reporters after Wednesday's practice.

Apparently Mitchell's position on the team might be in jeopardy following the incident: Lions head coach Mike Benevides said Mitchell's future with the club "would be discussed."

"When you take any kind of a position that's derogatory, that's not right," said Lions general manager Wally Buono.

Related:

Twitter Gives A Voice To The Homeless

Should We Be Using Social Media To Make Emergency 9-1-1 Calls, Especially During Major Disasters?

Chinese Twitter User Seized After Supporting Liu Xiaobo

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