The news that Twitter is censoring content in Germany is a great big casserole of free speech and censorship issues. There are so many things to say that I almost don’t know where to start. Almost.
The first issue is over the German laws against holocaust denial and Nazism. These laws are not unique in Europe and should be seen in the context of the second world war. Europeans, and Germans in particular, are obviously very sensitive about the Nazi ideology and one can understand why such laws are in place. However, this does not make them right or sensible. It is all very well to suppress Nazi ideology, but what if the next threat to democracy comes from a left wing perspective? Communism, after all, is as lethal as Nazism.
Suppressing any speech, however abhorrent, only serves to send it underground. It is far better to have such speech out in the open where it can be countered. The great failure in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was not that Hitler was allowed to put forward his views, but that not enough people challenged him. This is how evil flourishes – good people stand by and do nothing. Laws against Nazism and holocaust denial are sticking plasters. They do not tackle the root cause of such ideologies, or change minds.
The fact that such laws exist for ‘sensitive’ Issue of holocaust denial means that Europe opens itself to charges of hypocrisy when criticising other countries around the world who censor their citizens. Saudi Arabia will argue that blasphemy is equally as sensitive; Turkey will argue that denigrating Turkishness is equally sensitive; and Thailand will argue that insulting the King is equally sensitive.
On the subject of Twitter, I think this is a pivotal moment for the company. It is the point where Twitter ceased to be a tool of the radical, the weak, the insurgent, the dissident. Instead it has become just another media outlets, one that submits to the regulations of the country within which it broadcasts/publishes. Just another piece of the same old hierarchy.
What a shame that a tool that was used by so many to speak truth to power has been hamstrung due to a few unsavoury characters posting unpleasant messages. Throughout history, governments have been able to use the fear of a small groups of people to over-regulate, and infringe on the rights of the majority. Here we see the same modus operandi in play.
Ah well, it was fun while it lasted.
In the few analyses of this I have read, Twitter itself has not received much criticism. The prevailing view is that since Twitter is a private company, and wishes to maintain offices in Germany, it is understandable that they would wish to comply with German laws. I agree: it is understandable, but it is also disappointing. My view is that Twitter is so influential (culturally, if not financially) that the company has more bargaining power than it realises. The executives at Twitter could have refused to kowtow to these illiberal speech laws, and presented the German government with an all or nothing decision: If you will not allow these speech acts, we will simply not deliver Twitter in your country at all!
I think the cultural fallout for Germany would have been politically embarrassing. It would also have served as a wake-up call to the German people, signalling that their speech laws are do not meet the standards of free expression that we (and in particular the European Union) demand of other countries. This course of action would have been the noble, brave, and radical pathway that would have significantly enhanced the Twitter brand as a haven for free expression. But of course it was not in the short term financial interests of the company, and so they did not consider it.