Twitter, Reddit and the battle over freedom of speech

Where should freedom of speech begin and end when you are a web-based entity with a global audience? That’s the question raised by a couple of recent events, including the furor over a Reddit moderator’s creepy behavior, and now the news that Twitter has blocked an account for the first time at the request of a state government — in this case Germany, which asked the service to take action against a Twitter user posting neo-Nazi sentiments, something that is forbidden by the laws of that country. As the web and social tools become more mainstream, these kinds of battles over the limits that should apply to free speech are only going to become more frequent, but the solution to them remains elusive at best.

In the case of Reddit, a moderator known as Violentacrez created a series of offensive and quasi-legal threads or sub-Reddits within the site devoted to posting photos of women (in some cases, minors) taken in public without their permission, and when Gawker writer Adrian Chen said he planned to make the moderator’s real identity public — which he later did in a long profile of Violentacrez and his various obsessions — some parts of the Reddit community responded by banning links to any Gawker Media blogs, raising questions about the site’s commitment to free speech.

An internal memo from Reddit CEO Yishan Wong later admitted that the ban — which was not site-wide but confined to certain specific parts of the community — “is not making Reddit look so good,” and that in the future the site will “respect journalism as a form of speech that we don’t ban,” just as sub-Reddits devoted to offensive content are:

“We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it. Not because that’s the law in the United States – because as many people have pointed out, privately-owned forums are under no obligation to uphold it – but because we believe in that ideal independently.”

Twitter blocks its first account for hate speech

Meanwhile, Twitter said on Wednesday that it has blocked the account of a neo-Nazi group at the request of the German government, something that the company announced earlier this year it had the ability to do — although it said at the time that it would try hard to only use this feature in extreme circumstances, and would record its behavior at Chilling Effects so that everyone would know. The block was announced in a tweet from general counsel Alex Macgillivray, and he later added: “Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently.”

Although Twitter has blocked accounts for other reasons — including the controversial blocking of a Financial Times journalist who criticized the network’s corporate partner, NBC, during the Summer Olympics — this is the first time it has done so at the request of a foreign government. Since its inception, Twitter has boasted that it sees itself as the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” and both Macgillivray and CEO Dick Costolo have regularly defended the need to “let the tweets flow” during events such as the Arab Spring.

As Twitter has become larger and more corporate in its focus, however, with hundreds of millions of users around the world and the need to generate revenue a priority, simply “letting the tweets flow” is no longer an option. As a global media entity, Twitter arguably had to abide by the German government’s request in order to do business there. The question is where Twitter will draw the line when free speech conflicts with its desire to either promote its corporate partnerships or make peace with foreign governments (Google also blocks content based on foreign laws in countries such as Germany, as Danny Sullivan points out).


Where does the censoring stop?

The banning of Gawker links seems like an obvious infringement on free speech — although as Yishan Wong points out, free-speech protection is something that is only legally or constitutionally required of governments, not corporations. But the posting of photos taken in public without the subject’s consent is a lot more complicated: while taking a picture of someone in public without their permission is legal in most of North America, it isn’t in some other countries because it is seen as an infringement of privacy.

Should the posting of such photos qualify as free speech, even though it is offensive to women and possibly contributes to an atmosphere of misogyny and/or promotes violence? Some would argue that they should not — or that the need to protect free speech should be modified by a desire to promote positive social attitudes, and therefore Reddit should remove this kind of content. Critics cite the famous quote from Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in which he said free speech should not protect someone who shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theater (although some legal scholars say we should be careful of how much we cite Holmes, since his commitment to free-speech principles was questionable at best).

But Twitter’s decision to bow to Germany’s desire to block a specific account is troubling for a number of reasons. Although it is nice that Twitter can allow the rest of the world to see the tweets in question, rather than blocking it entirely, this is a little like Google selectively blocking access to the offensive anti-Muslim video “The Innocence of Muslims” from Egypt and Libya. Do people in those countries not deserve to see content that everyone else can see? Are we prepared to sacrifice their free-speech rights (assuming we think they have any) to protect the interests of a specific company?

What if the government of Iran asked Twitter to block accounts that post photos of scantily-clad women because they are against the law? Would that be acceptable? Twitter has said that it will make its own judgments in such cases, as Google does — but what recourse do we have if they decide to do something we disagree with? More than anything, these kinds of cases reinforce how much influence private entities like Twitter and Google now have over what information we receive (or are able to distribute), and the responsibility that this power imposes on them.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Jennifer Moo and Rosaura Ochoa