The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the French war on anti-Semitic tweets says about hate speech in France

A new French court ruling will require Twitter to release the personal data of anyone found to be tweeting racist sentiments.

The ruling comes after a legal complaint filed in October by France's Union of Jewish Students, which argued that several tweets posted with the hashtag #agoodjew had broken a French law prohibiting incitement to racial hatred, Computerworld reported.  Under the ruling, Twitter must also provide an easy way for French users to flag tweets deemed illegal under French law.

"It reminds the victims of racism and anti-Semitism that they're not alone, and that the French law that defends them must apply everywhere; there should be no exception for Twitter," UEJF president Jonathan Hayoun said in a statement.

Twitter has 15 days to comply with the order or risk being fined 1,000 euros a day until it does, France 24 reported. Twitter has stated repeatedly that it can't delete tweets but that users found violating the site's terms of service can have their accounts suspended. It's also the company's policy not to reveal anonymous users unless a U.S. court orders them to do so.

The case is yet another example of U.S.-based social media services butting up against European hate speech laws. Last year, Newcastle University law student Joshua Cryer admitted using the social networking site to assail soccer player Stan Collymore, who is part Afro-Caribbean, with racist tweets. He was charged under Britain's Communications Act and was sentenced to 240 hours of community service and ordered to pay 150 pounds in fines. In October, Twitter banned a neo-Nazi account in Germany on the request of German law enforcement, the first time it had ever done so.

However, France's crackdown on offensive tweets is also evidence of the country's attempt to suppress racist sentiments in a public that's both increasingly diverse and increasingly prejudiced.

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have been long-simmering problems in Western Europe, but the March 2012 murder of four Jews in Toulouse by a Muslim extremist cast a spotlight on the issue. The French have recently grown more likely to believe that Jews hold too much power in business, according to a 2012 survey by the Anti-Defamation League, with more than half of French people saying they think it's "probably true" that Jews are more loyal to Israel than France. (Granted, that same survey showed the rates for anti-Semitic beliefs are still much higher in Spain, Poland and Hungary than in France.)

Rachael Levy, a Jewish writer living in France, once speculated that France's devotion to secular values -- an idea called laïcité -- actually does more to foster racism and discrimination than to prevent it, and she may have a point. According to a new Ipsos poll published by Le Monde, only 29 percent of French people believe the “vast majority of immigrants who have settled in France are well-integrated," and 77 percent believe religious fundamentalism in France is a concern.

France's anti-racism policy has been at times criticized for ignoring discrimination in employment and housing while focusing its efforts mostly on eradicating offensive speech. The country doesn't collect census information on racial or ethnic minorities, for example, but it does criminalize hate speech and Holocaust denial.

But efforts to protect France's Jewish community in particular have been stepped up over the past year amid a series of attacks on synagogues and other religious centers. After the Toulouse killings, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé pledged, “We will combat anti-Semitism in every place because every time a Jew is cursed, struck or killed, it puts all of France in the line of fire. We are not willing to tolerate anti-Semitism. It is against all French values.’’

In October, French President Francois Hollande promised to introduce legislation that would allow police to arrest suspected terrorists outside France's borders and to access the e-mails of potential terrorists. He also said places of worship would receive increased surveillance and protection, Reuters reported.

"I have reaffirmed that the state will not compromise in fighting racism and anti-Semitism. Nothing must be tolerated," Hollande told reporters at the time.

French groups even went so far as to sue Google for allegedly promoting "unsolicited and systematic associations between famous people and their Jewishness" through the service's auto-complete function, meaning that typing in the name of a famous figure occasionally yields the word "Jew" or "Jewish" among the suggested searches.

If Twitter refuses to comply with the French order, French authorities can try to push the case through a U.S. court, a process that worked for the British government in a similar situation in 2011, Mashable reported.

But there are bound to be more instances of racist or offensive tweets, Facebook postings, Tumblr photos and other online ephemera created by users from France and other countries that the U.S.-based platforms will have to grapple with. How these cases unfold will say a lot, not just about governments' commitments to fight hate speech online, but also about American companies' willingness to alter their own service terms in the hopes of appeasing foreign governments.