Earlier this year, Twitter announced a new device and a policy of weeding out and removing offensive content from its site if a foreign government requested it.
Thursday, the company tweeted that it's done so for the first time — blocking a neo-Nazi group's account in Germany. Today, Twitter withheld another account — this one in Britain, belonging to a right-wing member of the European Parliament who tweeted support for discrimination against gays. Government officials are investigating both cases.
In the first case, as The Guardian writes, a German official sent a letter notifying Twitter that a right-wing group that called itself Better Hanover had been banned for their neo-Nazi views and anarchistic hate speech. But the group was still spewing xenophobic, neo-Nazi rhetoric with its Twitter account and the government wanted it stopped.
"It is disbanded, its assets are seized and all its accounts in social networks have to be closed immediately," the letter said, according to Der Spiegel. The group is being investigated on suspicions that it sent a threatening video to Lower Saxony's conservative minister of social affairs, who has Turkish roots. Although the government shut it down, it had continued to tweet its neo-Nazi, xenophobic rhetoric, German officials said.
Dirk Hensen, a Twitter spokesman, told The Guardian that the contents of the tweets were blocked inside Germany but still available outside the country because the German police did not have the jurisdiction to request bans elsewhere. The group's website has also been blocked.
In the second case, Twitter shut down an account listed as "the official Twitter page of British National Party Chairman and Member of the European Parliament for the North West region, Nick Griffin." Investigators are looking into tweets by Griffin, suggesting that people have the "right to discriminate" and that a gay couple's lawsuit had "abused the system to persecute" the owner of a B&B who turned them away, according to the BBC and other media.
Given the wide variations among censorship laws, Twitter faces a balancing act in trying to comply with individual countries' standards. For example, during the Arab Spring uprisings opposition groups used Twitter heavily, while the governments they sought to overthrow wanted Twitter to block them.
After freezing the German group's account,Twitter's lawyer, Alex Macgillivray, tweeted that the company aimed to comply with the law and retain its status as a platform for free speech. "Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently," he wrote.
Twitter is also facing potential legal action in France due to a recent wave of anti-Semitic tweets, according to Der Spiegel.
Twitter said it will publish requests it receives to withhold content, except where it is legally prohibited from doing so.
Meanwhile, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris that Twitter "has agreed to remove French-language anti-Semitic tweets that have flooded the micro-blogging site in recent days. The union of French Jewish students had said it would seek an injunction against Twitter if it did not remove offensive, anti-Jewish messages and photos that have proliferated since October 10."
(Anita Huslin is an NPR news editor.)