Twitter wrote to me this week, asking me to censor a tweet I posted saying that Israeli judge, Shamai Becker had been accused of sexually assaulting his daughter. Their request originated from a demand by the Israeli attorney general that Twitter censor the tweet because it allegedly violated a gag order in the case.
I told Twitter that I would not do so because the tweet was a truthful report based on Israeli media. I argued that Twitter should not censor the tweet because the government of the State of Israel had no right to extend the jurisdiction of Israeli law either to me or to U.S. companies.
Twitter replied earlier today with this disappointing message:
Dear Twitter User:
This is a follow-up to our correspondence, dated August 2, 2016, regarding your Twitter account, @richards1052.
In accordance with applicable law and our policies, Twitter is now withholding the following Tweet(s) in Israel.
השופט שמאי בקר חשוד בביצוע עבירות מין בבתו. צא"פ הוטל על זהותו
— Tikun Olam (@richards1052) May 18, 2016
For more information about withheld content, please review our Country Withheld Content policy page: https://support.twitter.com/articles/20169222.
We cannot provide legal advice. You may wish to contact your own attorney about this matter.
Twitter calls this “withholding” its content. I know what I call it: censorship. They have permitted themselves to be intimidated by the State of Israel, whose officials refuse to honor freedom of expression and the press. They have dragged Twitter down to the low level of Israel.
Imagine this scenario: you are a public figure in your country and the police arrest you for a serious crime. Your lawyers obtain a gag order forbidding the media in your own country from associating your name with the charges. Then your lawyers approach the foremost legal officer of the State and demand that he use the full weight of the state to enforce domestic law in a foreign country. And the State, on your behalf, bullies a foreign company into doing so. I hope you can see the absurdity of this hypothetical case.
This is a slippery slope. Imagine every tin-pot dictator (or even a lowly street-sweeper) in the world finding hundreds or thousands of tweets which accuse him of crimes or misdeeds. The dictator succeeds in obtaining the judgment of a court that silences the media in his own country. After that, the State’s leading lawyer tells Twitter that they must censor all content that violates the laws of that country.
Twitter’s decision offers a field day for Erdogan or al-Sisi or Xi Jinping. They can now go to town cleaning up all the objectionable content on Twitter. And it could involve not just foreign leaders, but any average citizen who can avail himself of the laws of his land in this fashion. Anyone may object to anything tweeted about them. As long as you can get your nation’s legal officer to take up your cause, Twitter will have no recourse because this decision sets a precedent they can’t ignore.
Here’s another analogy to consider: Israeli media are not legally responsible for what readers post in the talkback section. This is also the case under U.S. law. But the Israeli attorney general is, in effect, arguing that Twitter is directly liable for whatever any of its users tweet which violates Israeli law. If Haaretz isn’t responsible for a comment posted which violates Israeli law, then why is Twitter?