Germany Ranks Third Highest For Censorship on Twitter

Twitter use in Germany
Germany lodged 43 requests to Twitter for content to be removed, with only Turkey and Russia lodging more. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Germany filed the third highest number of requests to Twitter for content to be removed from the platform, with only Turkey and Russia ranked higher, a new report has revealed.

Twitter’s biannual transparency report showed that between July-December 2014, Twitter received an 84% increase in global government and government-sanctioned demands to remove content. The top offenders were Turkey, which lodged 477 requests, Russia who requested 91, and Germany which lodged 43, though the reasons behind these requests differ.

Demands from Turkey generally focused on supposed violations of personal rights, such as libel of private citizens or government officials. In Russia, requests ranged from blocking content that promoted illegal drugs to attempts to suppress non-violent demonstrations.

Most German requests dealt with complaints of alleged hateful and discriminatory content, and resulted in a 37% compliance rate between Twitter and the German government. Russia and Turkey’s compliance rates were both around 13%.

A number of free speech organisations have voiced concern over the findings.

“Governments are definitely making more requests than they used to,” says Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, based in Berlin.

She believes Germany ranks so high due to a rise in nationalist sentiment in the past few months. “My guess is that there’s been such an increase in Germany due to a surge in support for anti-immigration groups, like Pegida, and a rise in neo-fascist groups. Based on the tenor of reactions here lately that wouldn’t surprise me.”

York points out that because Twitter has an office in Germany the social media company are required to adhere to German law, so the relatively high rate of compliance between the German government and Twitter sounds reasonable.

She also believes that the increasing demands from governments to remove content has been exacerbated by several victories in the last few months where social media outlets have been forced to take down information.

Facebook for example has complied with Turkey “a considerable amount” in the past few months, she says, most notably when it agreed to block Turkish users access to pages ‘insulting’ the Prophet Mohammed. Russia also succeeded in forcing Twitter to block a Ukrainian account in Russia in the last three months, something she believes is “absolutely not justified.” York has also criticised Twitter for having no international experts from outside the U.S. dealing with Twitter’s legal policy.

Rachael Jolley, an editor for Index on Censorship, an international organisation that promotes freedom of expression, also voiced concern about Twitter’s report. “In the case of Turkey, the number of requests has gone up to 477 this year, the highest in the world. This comes at a time when we are seeing a frightening clampdown on journalists and journalism in Turkey.”

Jolley also argued that Twitter must do more to combat the problem. “While we recognise social media companies are bound by domestic laws, we do worry that in some cases it appears Twitter and other social media sites can be too quick to comply with state request, even when they are not in line with international free speech standards and sometimes clearly politically motivated.”

However, Pam Cowburn, communications director at UK-based digital rights organisation the Open Rights Group believes that the responsibility does not just fall on Twitter’s shoulders, and that governments must be held accountable. “We need more transparency from the UK government about what they want to takedown and why, particularly when takedown requests involve political views - even if those views are extremist.”

The UK was ranked seventh in the Twitter report, lodging 22 requests for content to be removed, all of which were denied by Twitter.

Twitter commented on its own findings, saying: “Providing this level of transparency is not without its complications and sometimes means we get tough questions and criticism about our decisions. However, this candid feedback helps us to be evermore thoughtful about our policies and decisions regarding content and compliance as we navigate complex, diverse legal regimes around the world.”

Over the last six months, Twitter also saw an overall increase of 40% in the number of government request for user account information.