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Twitter's Growing Pain: Dealing with Neo-Nazi Hate Speech

By Adam Dickter
October 18, 2012 4:52PM

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As it grows, Twitter is likely to come under increasing pressure to deal with offensive speech. "This is the tip of the iceberg," said analyst Alan Webber of Twitter's move to block a neo-Nazi group. "I would bet that in the next three years, technology companies will either try to work within the boundaries of laws, or the laws will have to try to play catch-up."

With more than a half-billion users worldwide on Twitter, it's likely you can find tweets on nearly anything, including subjects that others find offensive.

But unlike its older social media sibling, Facebook, Twitter explicitly tells its users that content that others may find inflammatory is OK, and Twitter won't ban users for posting it.

The standard for blocking has so far been defined only within the confines of the law -- which, in America, means pretty much everything short of a death threat is OK.

Cracking Down on Nazis

But not so overseas, where free speech isn't as absolute. Because of its history, Germany bans public expression of Nazi ideas. So, Twitter has announced that it will use a micro-blocking tool to stop a particular right-wing organization from reaching Twitter users in that country.

Messages of 140 words or less from @HannoverTicker will still reach followers in the rest of the world, though. The feed comes from Besseres Hannover, or Better Hannover, a group that was banned in September by the Interior Ministry of Lower Saxony.

A letter from the Hannover police to Twitter, which was tweeted by the company's counsel on Wednesday night, said the group has been "disbanded, its assets are seized and all its accounts in social networks have to be closed immediately. The Public Prosecutor (State Attorney's Office) has launched an investigation on suspicion of forming a criminal association."

As of Thursday afternoon, the organization had about 620 followers (the number frequently rises and falls), few of whom appear to be American. The group's tweets are mostly in German, but the most recent, on Thursday, was in English: "Look at this regime: They gossip viciously about china and russia but noone [sic] about them! freedom for #germany! #censorship #injustice #brd."

The Pressure Is On

As it grows, Twitter is likely to come under increasing pressure to deal with offensive speech.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," said Alan Webber, principal analyst of the Altimeter Group. "I would bet that in the next three years, technology companies will either try to work within the boundaries of laws, or the laws will have to try to play catch-up."

Webber said that as the San Francisco-based microblogging service operates in more foreign countries, it will have to be familiar with their laws, just as Google has found as it runs afoul of privacy laws in the European Union.

"It's no different than global companies that have to know the tax laws in all the countries where they operate," he said. (continued...)

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