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Twitter blocks account of illegal German neo-Nazi group

Microblog blocks illegal far-right group in a global first,as Twitter tries to balance censorship concerns with hate speech laws

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 October, 2012, 5:23am

Microblogging site Twitter said it had blocked a neo-Nazi group's account at the request of German police, in what it called a global first for the company.

In a move pitting censorship concerns against laws on hate speech, Twitter yesterday said it had deployed the tool developed this year to comply with the request by the German authorities.

"We announced the ability to withhold content back in Jan [January]," Twitter's chief lawyer Alex Macgillivray said in a tweet. "We're using it now for the first time re: a group deemed illegal in Germany."

In a separate tweet, Macgillivray posted a link to a letter from the police in the northern German state of Lower Saxony asking Twitter to block the account of Besseres Hannover, a far-right outfit which was outlawed last month.

The account is still visible on Twitter with the handle hannoverticker and calling itself "Das nationale Informationsportal aus Hannover" (The national information portal from Hanover). But no message since the date of the ban, September 25, is visible in Germany, and the group's website is blocked or deleted.

Prosecutors in Lower Saxony have launched a probe against about 20 members of Besseres Hannover on charges of inciting racial hatred and creating a criminal organisation.

The group is suspected of sending a link to a threatening video by e-mail to the state's social affairs minister, Aygul Ozkan, who is of Turkish origin.

Macgillivray said in a tweet that Twitter aimed to restrict as little as possible on its website while complying with the law.

"Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently," he said.

He posted a link to the company's policy on "Country-Withheld Content" explaining the line it draws between free speech and legal compliance.

"With hundreds of millions of Tweets posted every day around the world, our goal is to respect our users' expression, while also taking into consideration applicable local laws," the California-based company said. "In our continuing effort to make our services available to users everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorised entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time."

It said once it received an official request to withhold content, it would notify users immediately explaining why their posts could pose legal problems for Twitter, and noted that users may challenge the decision.

Twitter said it was working with an anti-censorship group called Chilling Effects to publish such requests by authorities, except in cases where it is legally prohibited from doing so.

The letter from the Hanover police department posted in English and German on the Chilling Effects website is dated September 25 and cites the ban on the extremist group by the interior ministry of Lower Saxony.

Twitter was forced to apologise in July for suspending the account of a British journalist in an incident which prompted accusations that it favoured its commercial ties with Olympics broadcaster NBC over media freedoms.

The move came after an outcry over the suspension of Guy Adams, Los Angeles correspondent for The Independent, who had tweeted his outrage over NBC's delay in broadcasting the opening ceremony in order to catch the prime-time audience.

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