Twitter faces Paris court in battle over filtering trending topics

Should Twitter moderate discussions and trending topics according to local laws? Recent issues in France have sparked a serious debate.
Written by Valéry Marchive, Contributor

Should Twitter have to censor racist tweets by users? It's a question that France, and Twitter itself, are currently grappling with.

After the anti-Semitic hashtag UnBonJuif (a good Jew) made its way into the trending topics of Twitter in France last October, the Association of Jewish Students in France (UEJF) began legal action against the site, and last November asked a Paris court to force Twitter to reveal the details of the accounts that used the hashtag.

The UEJF also called for Twitter to roll out a more efficient notification system for users to report illegal content or hate speech for removal from the site - the existing one not being accessible enough, according to the group. So far, this has been to no avail, as the US-headquartered Twitter is claiming to be bound only by US rather than local laws, which would permit such hashtags under the First Amendment.

It's not the first time the question of offensive or illegal hashtags has been raised in France: in recent months, Twitter has seen a spate of racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic hashtags surfacing on the site.

Speaking on French TV show Médias, le magazine last week, France's minister for the digital economy Fleur Pellerin acknowledged that multinational companies like Twitter, being "somehow deterritorialised", raise "new challenges". Pellerin added she would like to talk directly with Twitter in order to work out a more co-operative approach to the issues the hashtags have exposed.

In short, Pellerin would like the microblogging site to abide by French laws. That means Twitter would be obliged to filter content that is "obviously illegal" or "contentious", once it's been notified of the content's existence by users. "A hashtag can be obviously illegal", according to the minister, who said she would in particular like to see Twitter filtering its trending topics list.

In the meantime, the case is still with the Paris courts, after an initial hearing last week. The next episode of Twitter's French courtroom drama – unlikely to be its last – will take place on 24 January, when a judge will rule on the case.

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