BY AUBE REY LESCURE:
It’s 3 am. You’re French, on Twitter and noticing that the third most trending hashtag is one that makes fun of Jews. You click on it, scroll through a dozen insulting jokes, but in some thoughtless moronic haze decide that they are quite funny and that, in fact, you’ll even write your own.
You wake up the next morning to newspaper headlines that you might face legal persecution.
Scandal erupted in France last week when the hashtag #AGoodJew (#UnBonJuif) went viral on the French Twittersphere. Anti-semitic jokes and pictures (including some depicting skeletal Auschwitz internees) surfaced in what can at best be called an extreme case of ‘bad humor.’ Both fortunately and unfortunately, the hashtag was generated and propagated not by a specific group with an anti-semitic agenda but rather by random Twitter users who just caught on to the distasteful trend. Major Jewish organizations in France immediately sought a response from Twitter, but since the company has no office or personnel on French ground, all that occurred was the organizations had ‘a rather disappointing’ trans-Atlantic call with San Francisco. The association UEJF (Union of Jewish Students in France) and SOS-Racisme are both looking to the French judicial system for action against both Twitter and potentially the users involved in the hashtag scandal.
Behold the hellish entanglement that international lawsuits can be. First of all, since Twitter is an American company, French courts can persecute it only through the measure of exequatur; i.e. appealing to the American judicial system to apply French laws to the case. This is unlikely to occur, especially since the first amendment is the central issue at hand and French laws are quite strict on the ‘abuse of the freedom of expression’: racial insults and provocations can lead to up to a year in prison. Secondly, it is debatable whether Twitter is legally responsible for the comments of its users. Even under French law, it is not—but can be persecuted for not removing the offending posts quickly enough. What UEJF and the suing parties are aiming for, at this juncture, is that Twitter hand over the IP addresses of the users involved in the anti-semitic scandal.
Will Twitter cooperate? It must really be 1930s Nostalgia Week on the European Twitter, for in Germany a neo-Nazi group has also been making waves on the website. Besseres Hannover (Better Hanover) has over 1000 tweets as well as active propaganda channels on YouTube and other social media sites—the group is outlawed by the German government and its suspected operation quarters are subject to police raids. At the bequest of the German government, Twitter blocked the group’s accessibility within Germany, but it is still available for users around the world to see. The case demonstrates how Twitter is willing to work with individual governments in accordance with national laws, but the company will not implement an overall anti-hate speech policy. The French organizations in the #AGoodJew affair are attempting to cite Twitter’s compliance with the German government as a precedent to how it should cooperate with the French justice system. We must wait to see if Twitter will agree to hand out the information about its users so that they can potentially be persecuted by French courts. After all, unlike the German case, we’re not talking about neo-Nazi criminal groups here—just your average Jean sitting in front of his screen making a crass racist joke on the internet. On one hand, if Twitter does hand out these individuals’ private data, it will seem like the whole scenario is coming straight out of 1984: if you are idiotic enough to make a distasteful joke on the internet, next thing you know the government’s knocking on your door. On the other hand, if such a fear is indeed instilled, then maybe Internet users will think twice before posting offensive material. While this is a good scare tactic, it is also a slap in the face to freedom of expression.
Should Twitter give out the information of the users of #AGoodJew? What’s your take?
Aube Rey Lescure ’15 is in Davenport College. As a Globalist Notebook blogger, she focuses on Europe and the politics and policies of the European Union. Contact her at email@example.com.