Twitter, Anti-Semitism, And A Quietly Important Free Speech Case

Back in October, a hashtag on Twitter, #unbonjuif, went viral in France. It translates out to “a good Jew,” and, well, the French are just as prone to trolling as we are, so you can guess what happened next. Twitter took down the offensive tweets, but it didn’t go far enough for France: They ordered the company to fork over the identity of the offending Twits.

Twitter has refused, arguing that as an American company, it doesn’t have to comply with French speech laws. So, far, French courts have disagreed, but there’s much more to this than just philosophical differences.

Twitter’s opinion is costing it money. A lot of money, in fact:

A Parisian circuit court ruled against the social network, giving it two weeks to comply or face a fine of up to €1,000 ($1,298) for each day it doesn’t. The Union of French Jewish Students want considerably more than that, says its president, Jonathan Hayoun, because the site “is making itself an accomplice and offering a highway for racists and anti-Semites”.

But the larger question is… legally speaking, who’s right here? We’ve ripped on Europe’s tendency to believe American companies should obey their tax laws before, but this one is murky to say the least.

Basically, it’s not clear what law, if any, actually applies. If a French citizen posts something using an American company that is allowed under American law, where the entire world, including the French citizenry, can see it… does French law apply? Does American? If French law applies, does that mean the UFJS can go after any French citizen who posted something anti-Semitic… or anybody who posted something anti-Semitic?

Clouding the issue is that it’s not clear how seriously France takes the law. Its law against anti-Semitic actions and language is among the strictest in the Western world, but rarely enforced.

Make no mistake, this is an important case. Most major Internet corporations are based in the United States, which has a high level of freedom of speech compared to other countries. Twitter winning or losing here is going to define how the Internet works for a long time to come.

But either way, expect more cases like this: Until international communications law gets with the times, this is going to continue to be a problem.