Twitter blocks neo-Nazi posts in Germany, setting precedent for targeted censorship

A Twitter page is displayed on a laptop computer. REUTERS/Mario AnzuoniIn a first for the social media giant, Twitter has blocked a German group's account on the micro-blogging site, but the block is restricted to Germany.

The blocking of the @hannoverticker account, which German police believe is promoting a neo-Nazi viewpoint and is therefore illegal in Germany, marks the first time that Twitter has used a policy announced back in January to block content at the request of specific countries.

The Associated Press reports the account is used by Besseres Hannover (Better Hannover), a group that was banned by state government last month for promoting Nazi ideals. The Lower Saxony police force sent in a letter requesting that the account be removed, which, in an effort for transparency, Twitter has made public.

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"At the beginning of the year Twitter announced the so-called 'country withheld content' function, which enables us to remove illegal content in a particular country while leaving it available for the rest of the world," said Twitter spokesman Dirk Hensen to The Associated Press.

"In doing this we place great value on transparency; in the case of the account (at)hannoverticker we used this function for the first time [sic]."

When announcing the move, Twitter's general counsel Alex Macgillivray tweeted links to both the letter from German authorities and to Twitter's 'Country Withheld Content' policy, along with the message "Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly and transparently."

And while the general consensus online seems to be that banning neo-Nazi speech is a very good thing, the implementation of Twitter's policy has left some people uneasy.

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Back in January, an informal CBC poll found that many of their readers thought the decision to block content locally was not right, and the possible reasons why are numerous. The argument has been made by bloggers and activists in heavily censored countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Cuba that the ability for governments to step in and request content be blocked could lead to the stifling of free expression.

As The Atlantic Wire suggests, the banning of this particular group is a move that most people can agree with. The Financial Times explains that "it distributed racist materials in schools, sent abusive video messages to officials and threatened physical violence against immigrants." But the long-standing implication that Twitter can shut down an account if a government asks for it to be silenced remains. With only one account banned so far, the line as to what should be censored and what should be left as free speech in the eyes of Twitter's management is still yet to be defined.

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