Over the past three days, Twitter has been preventing its users in France from viewing certain images and keywords related to the Paris attacks. The censorship, first reported today by the French newspaper Le Monde, applies to a keyword used by supporters of the Islamic State, tweets advocating terrorism, and, more controversially, graphic photographs taken inside the Bataclan after the terrorist attacks there left dozens dead.
On Sunday, France’s National Police used its Twitter account to ask social media users not to contribute to “the spread of photos of crime scenes,” out of “respect for victims and their families.” It encouraged Twitter users to send links to photos from the Bataclan massacre to PHAROS, a government website that compiles reports of illegal online activity.
On the same day, French law enforcement officials sent a request directly to Twitter, demanding the removal of certain tweets, according to Lumen, a Harvard University database of government takedown requests. The reasons the authorities gave for the request were a “serious attack on human dignity (images of cadavers)” and “secrecy of the investigation.”
According to Le Monde, Twitter complied by blocking many of the offending tweets and images. Others have been marked “sensitive content” and now must be clicked by users before becoming visible. Twitter has also agreed to prevent a keyword used by ISIS supporters from appearing in the “trending” box on its homepage.
On Tuesday, the French authorities submitted a second request, asking Twitter to delete a tweet advocating terrorism. A French law that went into effect in February allows police to block access to websites that are considered to be promoting terrorism without first obtaining a court order.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment, but civil liberties advocates in the United States were sharply critical of the censorship requests and of Twitter’s apparent willingness to comply. “In the face of terrorism, usually the first casualties are free speech and privacy, and that is extremely disappointing,” said Eva Galperin, a global policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the San Francisco-based group advocating for freedom of expression online.
In the past, Twitter has prided itself on resisting government censorship requests. In 2011, for instance, it declined to remove tweets by users in the United Kingdom who had defied a court order by disclosing details of privacy injunctions obtained by public officials. The company’s general manager in the UK said Twitter sees itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”
Though many details of the French government’s speech crackdown remain unclear, there appears to be no legal basis for it to censor images solely due to their graphic content. Even if there were, it would be unusual for Twitter and many other social media companies to comply to such a request without a court order.
“Companies like Twitter and Facebook and Google, the big tech companies in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, have mostly done a pretty good job of standing up to that kind of pressure,” says EFF’s Galperin. “But increasingly we’ve see Twitter bend right over.”
Despite France’s longstanding reputation as a bastion of free speech, it has proven increasingly willing to limit freedom of expression in response to Islamic terrorism. In 2013, a French court ordered Twitter to disclose the identities of people who violated the country’s strict hate speech law by sending anti-Semitic tweets. (Twitter complied only after losing in court.) In response to January’s terror attacks on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, the French government announced even stricter hate speech penalties, and a $100 million campaign to monitor and fight “hatred online.”
The Terrorism Act, passed by France’s National Assembly in November 2014, increases penalties for “advocating terrorism” to seven years in jail and a $100,000 fine if the act is “committed using a communication service available to the public on the internet.” The same month, France rolled out PHAROS, a site where people can anonymously report “illicit content or behavior” to police.
“France has become nothing short of a nightmare when it comes to free speech,” says Jonathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University. “The French government has aggressively rolled back free speech protections for years. I never thought I would see the day when France would become the leader in censorship and the criminalization of speech, however, it has become precisely that.”
In February, France brought its campaign against online hate speech to the United States. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve toured Silicon Valley, where he asked representatives of Google, Facebook, and Twitter to immediately remove terrorist propaganda when alerted to it by French authorities. “We emphasized that when an investigation is underway we don’t want to go through the usual government-to-government channels, which can take so long,” he told reporters at the French consulate in San Francisco, according to the TV station France 24.
But with this push to restrict graphic images of shootings, French officials appear to have taken an incredibly broad interpretation of propaganda. “France is an example of how censorship can become insatiable for the government,” says Turley, the Washington University professor. “What we have seen is an effort to regulate images in the name of fighting terrorism, when in reality these images reflect badly on the government.”