As the past several years have borne out, the power for Twitter to transform international events is astonishing, as Forbe’s Jeff Bercovivi recently reminded us:
“In 2009, Twitter inspired protesters in Moldova to demand political power. In 2010, the microblogging service channeled food, medical supplies and hope to the desperate victims of the earthquake in Haiti. Last year, that little blue bird did no less than foment revolution across the Arab world while uniting Americans against corporate greed and inequality.”
While Twitter’s power to foment change and revolution is unquestionable, a major change to the way it treats its tweets, has sparked a fire storm of debate.
Under a new initiative just announced by Twitter, it will now censor messages on a country-by-country basis to comply with national laws such as the bans on pro-Nazi speech in Germany and France.
Whether or not one agrees with the change, Twitter’s revised technology exposes the alarming reality of how a seemingly benign tweet (or other internet post) may be legal in one country, yet be criminal in another.
As an international attorney, I find the discussion fascinating because it touches on the limits and contours of how law is applied across the world.
Forbes’ Tim Worstall recently wrote an excellent article touching on these points. In Twitter’s New Censorship System and International Internet Law, Worstall explains that
[t]he law that guides what we write or say upon the internet is not the law of the jurisdiction in which we write or say it. It is also not the law of whatever jurisdiction hosts the material. No, we are covered by the law of whatever jurisdiction the material is read in.”
At that’s a great point and echoes the holding of a recent European Court of Justice decision where the court issued a ground breaking ruling giving plaintiffs, no matter where they reside, the right to sue in an EU member state of their choosing over online content that’s alleged to be defamatory or a violation of the plaintiff’s publicity or privacy rights.”
Worstall further points out:
We’re all liable to the laws of all the countries in which tweets can be (or are) read. Yes, all 190 odd members of the United Nations, all 250 odd legal jurisdictions around the world. If France has a law against insulting bureaucrats (it does) and you insult a French bureaucrat on the web then you have, at least arguably, just committed a crime in France.
This new reality may be hard to swallow for some, but what recent developments in jurisdiction and internet jurisprudence demonstrate is that we’re not just subject to our own local laws, but also the laws of the rest of the world.
Never before has jurisdiction been so pliable. And never before have the consequences of our online activities been so uncertain.
What do you think?