Immediately after a French court ordered Twitter to reveal details about users who had posted anti-Semitic messages, a proud Sacha Reingewirtz was already spreading the word about a judgment he helped win -- via Twitter.
Within minutes of the Jan. 24 ruling, the vice president of the Union of French Jewish Students was firing off tweets with the details of the decision. The Grand Instance Court in Paris, responding to a complaint filed by the union and several other groups last year, gave Twitter 15 days to hand over personal details of users suspected of posting anti-Semitic tweets in violation of France’s restrictive laws on hate speech.
The court also imposed a $1,300 fine for every day that Twitter fails to comply and ordered the company to set up a system that would flag illegal content for removal.
“It is a major victory for us and a legal breakthrough for others to use elsewhere in Europe,” Reingewirtz said.
The French ruling is the latest skirmish in the fight over the extent of free speech protections in the digital age, exposing the gap between Europe’s more restrictive post-Holocaust legislation on hate speech and the sweeping protections of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
It’s a rift that also runs through the Jewish world, with European Jewish groups hailing the ruling as an important bulwark against hate.
“Behind the anonymity that Twitter affords them, some European users feel safe to air out hateful views which they would not disseminate under their own names,” said Esther Voet, deputy director of CIDI, a Dutch Jewish watchdog on anti-Semitism. “But Twitter is also a public space, subject to the same laws that apply on the street.”
The Anti-Defamation League, an American group, offered a more muted response and declined to directly address the substance of the court order to reveal the identities of the offending users.
“Whether the French court order can or should be enforced in the United States gives rise to complicated issues of French legal interests versus American legal interests,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director. “While the law may be one tool in the fight against online hate, we believe that the best antidote to hate speech is counter-speech.”
Foxman also encouraged Twitter and other social media companies to “protect readers from harmful, hateful content.”
The French lawsuit centers on thousands of tweets organized under the hashtag #unbonjuif (“a good Jew”). Hashtags are labels used to index tweets on a particular topic.
In October, a competition of anti-Semitic and Holocaust jokes was indexed with the #unbonjuif hashtag. A similar phenomenon developed this month in Spanish with the hashtag #esdeJudios, or “just like Jews.”
In meetings with Twitter attorneys, the union demanded the removal of thousands of anti-Semitic tweets. Twitter agreed to block access to the tweets only in France. It also refused to delete the tweets entirely, set up a flagging system or hand over details about those who were seen by UEJF as inciting hatred against Jews.
The union and other groups filed a complaint with the Paris court on Oct. 23.
“Of the social networks, Twitter were the only ones to reject that they bear any responsibility for content put on their site,” said Mike Whine of the Community Security Trust, British Jewry's security unit. “You have to remember that the social networks were started 10 years ago by college kids, sometimes from their parents’ garages, who are only now beginning to accept their social responsibilities. It’s a journey.”
Last year, Whine attended talks in San Francisco between social media companies and representatives of European anti-racism NGOs to discuss how social networks could address hate speech requirements in Europe. The last round of talks, which have not been made public, was held four months ago at Stanford University.
“The representatives of Twitter silently walked out when the time came to agree on something,” said Ronald Eissens, co-founder of the Dutch anti-racism group Magenta and director of Meldpunt Discriminatie Internet, a watchdog on cyber hate.
Subsequently, Twitter agreed to block German users from accessing the account of a banned neo-Nazi group in the first application of a company policy known as “country-withheld content,” The New York Times reported.
A spokesperson for Twitter declined a request for comment about the meetings and would say only that Twitter was “currently reviewing the court’s decision.”
In Europe, anti-racism activists see the ruling as a failure of such negotiations toward a modus vivendi that could bridge European hate-speech legislation and American constitutional protections.
“The ruling is important, as social networks are the main vehicle for hate speech today,” said Valentin Gonzalez, co-founder of the Movement against Intolerance in Spain, where a new law outlawing Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic speech is about to go into effect. “But it’s regrettable that an agreement could not be reached instead of litigation, which is the last resort. Litigation creates a bad atmosphere, but we will also sue only if we feel we are getting no cooperation.”
Others believe that imposing any domestic legislative limits on international online platforms is a step backward from the freedom of information they enable.
Paul da Silva, a French computer journalist, said the Paris ruling was “excessive” and would hide hate speech instead of addressing it. And Benjamin Bayart, president of the French Data Network -- a nonprofit promoting the online accessibility of academic research -- said French prosecutors should “not hold the medium responsible for the content."
But European judges and legislators are more attentive to European history and the lessons of the Holocaust, according to Ronny Naftaniel, the executive vice chairperson of CEJI, a Brussels-based Jewish organization promoting tolerance through education.
“We have experienced what incitement can do and countering it is part of our commitment to the concept of ‘Never again,’ ” Naftaniel said.
Nowhere are societies more open to both arguments than in Eastern Europe, according to Rafal Pankowski of the Polish group Never Again. Poland has resisted ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime, fearing the censorship of online expression.
Pankowski argues that curbing online incitement is inevitable if the region’s young democracies are to retain their commitments to human rights and pluralism.
“There are hardly any Jews in Poland, so populists can't even use them as scapegoats,” Pankowski said. “Yet there is anti-Semitism that is kept alive and being transmitted to younger generations through social networks. Ideally this would be stopped through dialogue with the social media, but they largely ignore our requests. So sometimes suing is the only way.”