Posted on 25 Mar 2013 by Neilson
Last year a series of anti-Semitic tweets posted in French caused a stir on microblogging service Twitter. Following a request by a European group the company removed the racist tweets, though it refused to comply with court orders to reveal the identity of the posters. Now the social network has been hit with another $50 million lawsuit for failing to file in a certain time frame.
This highlights a rudimentary problem with the Internet: the lack of international treaties regarding material published on the Internet. I have personally advocated for this for over 15 years.
We may be headed toward a United Nations-imposed, universal anti-hate speech agreement, which will result in widespread censorship because it will include hate speech against a dictator or an individual.
You can easily imagine protection against hate speech taken too far. In the United States hate speech against an individual online is already considered cyber-bullying, and if the land of free speech so quickly legitimizes idiocies such as "cyber-bullying" (aka name-calling), then who knows how extreme the rest of the world will be.
That said, Twitter can do what it wants. Banning these tweets is not a problem or a violation of rights. Twitter owns the tweets. It owns the service. The tweet did not come from a personal blog run from a privately owned server. There is no free speech protection.
But this also means that Twitter is responsible and liable at some level for what gets posted and is subject to getting sued, as is the case right now. All the social networks must ask themselves how liable they are. And if a universal anti-hate speech edict is reached, then what?
If a hate group such as the Westboro Baptist Church posts offensive things on Facebook, is the company liable? I think so. If Twitter users are behind some sort of plot to overthrow a foreign government then can Twitter execs be indicted in a foreign court if the overthrow is quashed? What happens when someone merely calls someone else an "a-hole" on Twitter? Can it be sued? You can expect so.
The overthrown government issue is the bigger problem. Weirdness can happen if the dispute crosses borders. Imagine you get sued by some government in North Africa for innocuous comments on Facebook--and those comments mean the death penalty for both you and Zuckerberg.
Needless to say, something needs to be done and that something is the creation of a real and meaningful treaty to cover these sorts of contingencies. If not, kiss today's Internet good-bye.