Opinion Brief

Twitter censors its first account: Ominous precedent or no big deal?

The media company blocks the tweets of a neo-Nazi account at the behest of local German authorities — raising questions about the potential scope of its control

In a move sure to rile up free-speech defenders, Twitter has censored its first account ever, shutting down a German neo-Nazi group after feeling the pressure from local German authorities. The private media company agreed to block the account of Besseres Hannover ("Better Hanover") on Wednesday night using a new tool. Germany-based visitors to Besseres Hannover's page will see greyed-out boxes with the words "@Username withheld" instead of normal tweets. Activists fear Twitter may begin partnering with governments more regularly to silence protesters, who've famously used Twitter to rally for various causes. Does Twitter's new censorship tool sound the death knell for free speech on the platform?

It's hard to be mad: The ease with which Twitter's move can be circumvented has helped to mitigate the initial anger, says Will Oremus at Slate; while the tweets are blocked for Germany-based users, they're visible to other users all over the globe or, it would seem, any German who changes his "country" setting to "worldwide." The move is "likely to provoke outrage" from "the most ardent free-speech advocates." But since it sounds so easy to get around, it's hard for the rest of us to be outraged.
"Twitter censors a user for the first time, but it's hard to get too outraged about"

Twitter can do whatever it wants: "The thing is, Twitter is a private, for-profit company," says Laura Beck at Jezebel, "and can therefore do whatever the hell it wants." Obviously, this is a much more complicated issue than Twitter flipping its users the bird, and it's "clear that protecting their users while at the same time staying relevant and making money is a hot topic at Twitter HQ." The company's proven that it's willing to comply with governments when pushed, so we shouldn't really be all that surprised.
"Twitter censors its first account. What does this mean for activists?"

We'll have to see how this plays out: I doubt many Germans "are sorry that neo-Nazis have to try a little harder to get their message heard," says Adam Clark Estes at The Atlantic Wire. But what if this were an American account that was "hyper critical of the government's plans to thwart terrorist attacks?" Would Twitter cooperate with authorities who want to shut it down? "In the past, censorship... wasn't in Twitter's playbook. Now, that's no longer the case." As for how Twitter exercises its power in the future, we'll have to wait and see.
"Twitter censors users for the first time"

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