Blocked for 130 days: How Twitter ignores the law
Imagine a foreign company with billions in sales, known all over the world, that does business in your country. Said company knowingly disregards local law, ignores court orders and tries to hide its local offices so no one can contact them.
What kind of company would behave in such an appalling way? The answer is: Twitter.
How did this come about? Best to start at the beginning.
Before the European Parliament elections in May 2019, I noticed that quite a few people in Germany were getting banned from Twitter for saying .. things. Not justiciable things or hateful things. They were just expressing opinions.
Among those banned were a Berlin secretary of state, a Jewish newspaper, politicians, entrepreneurs, journalists.
A few weeks before, Twitter had drawn up new rules against attempts to influence or manipulate elections, because the mighty European Commission was breathing down its neck. The Commission feared that (Russian) bots might try to influence EU elections the way they had done during the US presidential campaign. So they wanted Facebook and Twitter to do something about it.
Deciding whether a tweet falls under these anti-manipulation rules, isn’t easy. Context is everything of course. Take the case of Thomas Stadler, a lawyer who had tweeted that voters of the right-wing Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) should sign their ballots before putting them into the box (thus rendering them invalid). He got blocked.
The context in this case is that a year earlier an AfD politician had photographed his ballot during a crucial vote in the Bundestag and posted the picture, insinuating that the powers-that-be might miscount his ballot if he didn't document it. He got fined 1000 Euro by the president of the parliament.
After this incident, „Right wingers should definitely sign their ballots“ became something of a meme. It was clearly meant in a satirical way. It certainly was not an attempt to manipulate elections. Right-wing voters might be stupid, but they’re not that stupid.
But seeing all these arbitrary account bans, I wondered whether Twitter’s censors were. According to the company's German representatives, flagged tweets are reviewed by actual people, not just by algorithms. This hardly seems credible, though. The Juedische Allgemeine newspaper got banned for tweeting the article headline „Why Israel’s ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff refrains from talks and meetings with the AfD“. Was it really human editors that decided to block this?
So I ran a little test. On May 6, I posted a thread that called for voters to screw up their ballots. I did a tweet for every major German party. I urged voters of the free market championing FDP to sell their ballot to the highest bidder on Ebay. I suggested AfD followers sign their ballots, photograph them, post them on Instagram and then eat them, etc. It was sledgehammer irony - surely Twitter’s censors could not miss that.
A few hours later, Twitter asked me to retract the AfD tweet. The company informed me that I could either delete the tweet or appeal. If I chose the latter, my whole account would be blocked indefinitely. Note that this is the opposite of due process: if you appeal, you get punished before the review is concluded.
Many people will argue that Twitter is a private company. Their platform, their rules, right? Of course they can choose to delete stuff. It’s in the user agreement somewhere. It’s the digital equivalent of exercising domestic authority.
Wrong. At least here in Germany, courts have repeatedly ruled that social media platforms have to tolerate users saying what is legally permissible. Satire certainly is. The German version of the First Amendment, Article 5 of the Grundgesetz (the constitution) guarantees freedom of expression and stipulates that „there shall be no censorship“. While this is first and foremost aimed at the state, it does apply to companies, too. Since freedom of speech is a fundamental right, any private contract that contains anything to the contrary is void.
I find it ironic that Twitter, a company from the US where freedom expression is held in such high regard, censors its users. What is even more puzzling to me is that the company does not appear to do this by accident. During a recent hearing in the Bundestag, Twitter representatives allegedly explained to lawmakers that it is company policy to block any election related statements tinged with irony or satire.
Think about that for a moment. Twitter basically told lawmakers they don’t give a fuck about the German constitution.
I tried to send Twitter the equivalent of a pre-collection letter before letting slip the dogs of law. But that is not an easy thing to do, because Twitter does not have a German address in its masthead. They do offer a service here and they do have offices in Hamburg. I know this because their German head of operations, Jolanta Baboulidis, recently posted pictures of it. But like some sleazy insurance salesman who does not want to be pestered by pissed-off clients, Twitter hides the office's address. I tried finding it by searching various databases, but someone has obfuscated it well.
So I faxed (!) my letter to San Francisco. I got no reply and my account remained frozen in carbonite.
Finally I got a lawyer. He asked the Munich State Court to rule, in short cause, that my tweet was satire, not election manipulation; that Twitter had violated my constitutional rights; that they should re-instate the tweet asap.
The court did just that and sent an injunction to Twitter in Dublin (because, remember, they have no German address). A few days later, Twitter's German lawyers signaled that the company had received the injunction. The law firm said that would reply within a few days. When they didn’t, we reached out to them and received a brief reply:
„We no longer work for Twitter.“
These Twitter guys are more slippery than a snake oil salesmen.
My account has remained completely blocked for over four months now. We are still waiting for an official delivery confirmation regarding the injunction. This process can apparently take up to three months. Once the Munich State Court receives the confirmation, my lawyer can apply for a fine of up to 250,000 Euros (the money goes to the state coffers).
I know of at least one other person in a similar situation, a local politician who also got an injunction, so far to no avail.
I still wonder why Twitter plays it that way. I think we can rule out sheer incompetence. They know about the situation, both in terms of individual cases and the public furor surrounding it. Remember, there was a parliamentary hearing and #twittersperrt (#twitterblocks) was trending for days. Jack Dorsey was in Hamburg recently to meet with his German team and probably got briefed on the state of things.
People are still getting blocked on Twitter for exercising their constitutional rights. Parliament is thinking about calling a second hearing.
But Jack, for some reason, continues to give the finger to freedom of speech, constitutional rights, court orders, sound business processes and his users.