Twitter Bans Neo-Nazi Account in Germany: A Controversial Step

Posted By Dawei Chi, JILP Member, Oct 31, 2012

In an attempt to balance freedom of expression and compliance with local laws, Twitter has blocked users in Germany from accessing the account of a neo-Nazi group that is banned by the government.[1] This move is Twitter’s first step applying its new censorship policy announced in January. Under the policy, the group’s tweets will appear to German users as greyed-out boxes with the words “@Username withheld” and “This account has been withheld in: Germany.” This is part of Twitter’s effort to be transparent while complying with censorship policies and laws of different countries so that it doesn't have to be shut down in those countries.[2] While promoting limitation on hate speech and restraints on racist expression, the policy also creates concerns of violating freedom of speech and its actual effectiveness.

The blocked Twitter group belongs to a far-right organization known as the “Besseres Hannover”. The group is said to be a neo-Nazi organization that promotes racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. Considering these questionable values, which neo-Nazism is disseminating, and Germany’s complicated history of Nazism since WWII, banning certain Nazi-related symbols and comments appears to be a socially beneficial regulation within Germany.

Younger generation’s use of social network websites in Germany can give them unlimited access to uncensored information. Most teenagers don’t have the judgment of a prudent adult, and their values could be easily affected by the information that they are exposed to. Measures such as limiting online access to neo-Nazi organizations and groups would certainly create a “cleaner” Internet environment for the younger generation.

Twitter’s compliance with German law would also help reduce racism and comfort minority groups, helping promote social harmony.  As explained in New York Times article, Twitter blocks German Access to Neo-Nazi Group, “Members of the neo-Nazi group used ‘Pied Piper methods’ to lure young people into their orbit, including distributing a right-wing magazine outside schools. They harassed, threatened and even attacked migrants, and were suspected of sending right-wing messages to a government official of Turkish background.” [3] Although nationally forbidden, some extreme behaviors directed at certain minority groups still occur throughout Germany because of neo-Nazism. Restricting neo-Nazi group’s distribution of messages within Germany would serve the country’s effort to protect historically harmed minorities against racism.

In contrast to the social benefit in Germany, Twitter’s compromise with German law and censorship policy raises concerns about potential violations of freedom of expression. Although Nazi slogans and symbols are illegal in Germany, German law may not be the dominant power in Twitter policies. Twitter is a company from the United States and the United States grants extensive protection of freedom of speech under the first amendment of the Constitution. Twitter’s policy may indicate a potential violation of a basic human right protected by the US Constitution.

Blocking neo-Nazism group is Twitter’s first attempt to adopt its censorship policy. However, this first attempt to reconcile with local policy may have opened the gate to the abusive censorship of political and religious agendas by other national governments. For instance, a government may negotiate with Twitter to censor anti-government or religious comments. To some extent, Twitter’s cooperation could encourage a government’s abuse of power, since they can change the law accordingly to limit Internet information availability to their citizens.

Twitter is not the only Internet resource or social network website that has users all over the world, nor is it the first company to comply with the German government’s regulation. Twitter is another example of a major international networking site that is attempting to maintain its market by compromising with local laws. The cumulative effects of other companies potentially following Twitter’s example could lead to worldwide violations of freedom of speech.

Another concern with Twitter’s move is that blocking access to Nazi groups may not stop access to neo-Nazi content and messages in Germany. There are millions of comments on Twitter each day, and Twitter can block certain groups that catch people’s attention, but it cannot censor every comment each user posts. Even after blocking all the Nazi groups on Twitter, people can still access messages that disseminate Nazi values.

Furthermore, Twitter only banned access to the neo-Nazi group in Germany, while users from other countries can still access the group. Users that know about the group can easily find ways to get around the block placed by Twitter and browse the banned content.

Some people argue that there are more efficient ways to cope with Nazism than blocking access to neo-Nazi information. For example, some argue that a proper education which teaches individuals to assess values from Nazism would be the better method to consolidate long term social beliefs. Directly confronting Nazism instead of avoiding it may create a more thorough understanding of basic human values within German society. Therefore, Twitter’s actions may actually hinder the process of eliminating Nazi thoughts.

Jillian C. York, the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, “It’s not a great thing, but it’s a way of minimizing censorship. It’s better for Twitter if they can keep countries happy without having to take the whole thing down.” [4] In order to survive in certain countries, it may be a necessary for an international company to compromise by tailoring its policies to local law; however, too much appeasement can lead to abuse of power and violate basic human rights. A line must be drawn. Since each country has its own sensitive issues and customized laws, the burden of balancing social policy with the protection of individual rights falls upon the discretion of companies like Twitter until a binding international standard appears.



[1] Nicholars Kulish, Twitter Blocks German’s Access to Neo-Nazi Group, N.Y. Times, Oct. 18, 2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/19/world/europe/twitter-blocks-access-to-neo-Nazi-group-in-germany.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&ref=europe

[2] Will Oremus, Twitter Censors a User For the First Time, But it’s Hard to Get Too Outraged About it, Slate http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2012/10/18/twitter_censors_neo_nazi_group_besseres_hannover_is_first_user_blocked_under.html

[3] Supra 1.

[4] Supra 1.