Following a wave of racist and anti-Semitic posts on Twitter in 2012, two French organisations have filed criminal charges against the US-based website for refusing to hand over the details of users violating French law.
Two French anti-racism organisations on Thursday filed a criminal suit in a French court against US website Twitter, demanding a 38-million-euro fine (50 million dollars) for refusing to hand over data relating to French users who make racist comments online.
The move is an escalation in the legal effort by the French Jewish Students Union (UEJF) and the “J’Accuse” organisation, who took the case to a civil judge in January following a wave of racist and anti-Semitic posts.
In October, Twitter users had posted comments using hashtags [used to group posts according to themes] such as #UnBonJuif, meaning “A Good Jew”, which became the third most popular in France at the time.
While many of the posts using this and other hashtags defended Jews, a significant number were overtly racist and in breach of French laws against racism and anti-Semitism.
The groups had asked Twitter to provide data that would allow the identification of racist users of the site. They also demanded that Twitter put in place a system for alerting against racist or anti-Semitic posts.
‘Designed to make Twitter wake up’
Twitter was given two weeks to respond to the demand to the civil complaint. The anti-racism groups’ lawyer Stéphane Lilti told FRANCE 24 there had been no response, leaving his clients no option but to launch criminal proceedings.
“We are upping the stakes because Twitter has not been listening to the fact that they have to abide by French law,” Lilti said. “The 38 million euros cited, which is [the equivalent of] 50 million US dollars, is designed to make them wake up to the fact that protecting the authors of racist tweets is not acceptable in France.”
Lilti explained that from his clients’ point of view, Twitter was hiding behind US media law, which it argues does not apply in France.
“We are not against Twitter,” the lawyer insisted. “This action is purely aimed at people who write racist comments online. But if we are going to stop this kind of online behaviour in France, multinationals like Twitter have to abide by French law, and not hide behind the US First Amendment that guarantees freedom of expression.”
“Twitter wants to be known as a bastion of free speech,” he added. “But you can’t apply US legal standards in all jurisdictions, such as France, where there are laws prohibiting the publication of racist or anti-Semitic comments.”
Twitter to appeal
Twitter, which had removed the offending posts after they went online at the end of 2012, has 15 days to respond to the criminal complaint.
On Thursday the site said it would appeal and the case is expected to go to court in September.
In a statement, the US-based site said it was “in constant contact” with the UEJF who it said were “sadly more interested in grandstanding than taking the proper international legal path for this data.”
Twitter cannot control the vast number of Tweets that get posted by its users every day, but if complaints are made against users and their comments, those posts can be removed and accounts suspended.
In October last year, Twitter used a country-specific filter in place in Germany to suspend the account of a banned far-right group in the city of Hannover.