When should a transnational social-media company respect the laws of the land and when should they ignore them?
Twitter's general counsel Alex Macgillivray tweeted last night that the company had taken action to block access to the tweets of @hannoverticker, the twitter account of white-supremacist group Besseres Hannover (Better Hannover), from within Germany. This is the first such action under a system outlined last January which gave Twitter the ability to censor tweets on a country-by-country basis. At the time, Twitter theorized this exact sort of situation as the basis for its plan, saying, "As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content."
The tweets remain visible to users elsewhere in the world. For people in Germany, in place of @hannoverticker's tweets, something like this appears in their streams, with the relevant information filled in:
As far as censorship goes, this is a pretty careful variety. It's transparent, making sure users see the censorship where the tweet would be. It limited, turning off the light in Germany but leaving the account active and viewable from abroad. It's well explained, as Twitter has posted a copy of the take-down request it received from Hannover's police on the site chillingeffects.org. And, most significant, it is designed to comply with a valid legal order from an office of a democratically elected government.
Twitter's action here is reminiscent of Google's stated policies, which says the search engine company they "may" comply with requests to remove search results from google.de that violate the country's "youth protection law, like content touting Nazi memorabilia, extreme violence or pornography." Though Google has not offered details on what it has removed and the specific reasons, it has said that it complied with 77 percent of the requests it received from Germany.
For Americans who have been brought up on the First Amendment gospel, what are we to make of American companies who comply with speech-restrictive laws in the countries where they operate? As Garrett Epps wrote here at The Atlantic, the "American view isn't the "essence" of free speech. Much of the advanced, democratic world questions it, not from ignorance but from painful experience." Should we expect American companies to carry our free-speech banner around the world or is it reasonable for them to conform to local standards?
It's a really tough question and I don't pretend to have a happy solution. Certainly the fact that Germany produces its laws democratically and has universal suffrage (though it does not grant citizenship automatically to people born there to non-German parents, as we do here) makes abiding its laws more palatable, if not the outright respectful thing to do. A more difficult case was the one faced by Google last month when a video hosted on YouTube provoked violent reactions around the world. Their specific reasoning is obscured to us, but Google did block access to the video in certain countries, in a move that seemed out of step with their general inclinations. But perhaps that instance, which was fraught with the threat of immediate violence, should not be understood to indicate a more general shift at Google but an anomaly.
Really the test case will be if a democratically elected country bans speech that, unlike Nazi speech which threatens minority groups, is the speech of a protected class. It's not hard to think of a hypothetical example: A religious country that bans movies or tweets supporting gay rights or same-sex marriage. What then? Would we want Google and Twitter to "respect" those laws, that democratic process? I personally wouldn't, but that's going to be a very tough line for these companies to walk.
The brunt of the conflict will come in such a situation, when American values of diversity and the protection of minority rights, not to mention free speech, come into conflict with these companies' efforts to be good-faith actors in countries with very different ideas about how society should work, and how companies fit in to the complex relationship between citizens and governments. Not each instance will work out as well as Twitter's actions of the last two days, but step by step, case by case, some sort of arrangement -- messy though it may be -- will come to pass.