Micro-blogging site Twitter said Thursday it had blocked a neo-Nazi group's account at the request of German police in a global first for the company.
In a move pitting censorship concerns against national laws on hate speech, Twitter said it had deployed the tool developed only this year to restrict content in a single country rather than simply delete posted comments.
"We announced the ability to withhold content back in Jan (January)," its chief lawyer Alex Macgillivray said in a tweet. "We're using it now for the first time re: a group deemed illegal in Germany."
Twitter's spokesman in Germany, Dirk Hensen, confirmed the decision in an email to AFP.
Lower Saxony's interior minister Uwe Schuenemann welcomed the step to stop distributing Besseres Hannover's "hateful ideology", adding that social media sites including Facebook and YouTube had also complied with the request.
"Right-wing extremists are increasingly using the Internet to communicate with and advertise to young people," he said.
Macgillivray posted a link to a letter from the police in the northern
German state of Lower Saxony asking Twitter to dismantle the account of Besseres Hannover (Better Hanover), a far-right outfit that was outlawed last month.
The account is still visible on Twitter in Germany with the handle
@hannoverticker and calling itself "The national information portal from Hanover".
But no message since the date of the ban, September 25, can be seen, and the group's website has also been blocked or deleted.
Prosecutors in Lower Saxony have launched a probe against around 20 members of Besseres Hannover on charges of inciting racial hatred and creating a criminal organisation.
The group is in particular suspected of sending a threatening video by email to the state's social affairs minister, Aygul Ozkan, who is of Turkish origin, and distributing far-right newspapers at schools.
Macgillivray said Twitter aimed to restrict as little as possible on its
website while respecting the law.
"Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently," he said in a separate tweet.
He posted a link to the company's policy on "Country-Withheld Content" explaining the line it draws between free speech and legal compliance.
"With hundreds of millions of tweets posted every day around the world, our goal is to respect our users' expression, while also taking into consideration applicable local laws," the California-based company said.
It said once it received an official request to withhold content, it would notify users immediately explaining why their posts could pose legal problems for Twitter, and noted that users may challenge the decision.
'Tweets must continue to flow'
Twitter said it was working with an anti-censorship group called Chilling Effects to publish such requests by authorities except in cases where it is legally prohibited from doing so.
"We strongly believe that the open and free exchange of information has a positive global impact, and that the tweets must continue to flow," the company said.
Markus Kompa, a lawyer dealing with free speech issues with close ties to Germany's upstart Pirate Party, said the decision exposed the difficulty of respecting national laws on the World Wide Web.
"European freedom of information confronts the American system here which is completely different," he told AFP.
"I think there is the concern that you could see structures develop that establish national borders" on the Internet. But he noted that determined groups could easily circumvent bans by setting up new accounts.
Twitter was forced to apologise in July for suspending the account of a British journalist in an incident which prompted accusations it favoured its commercial ties with Olympics broadcaster NBC over media freedoms.
The move came after an outcry over the suspension of Guy Adams, Los Angeles correspondent for The Independent, who had tweeted his outrage over NBC's delay in broadcasting the opening ceremony in order to catch the primetime audience.
Macgillivray said at the time that the suspension stemmed from the social media site's "Trust and Safety policies," due to the publication of an NBC executive's email account.
The case did not stem from an official request to block an account.
And this week French anti-racist groups condemned what they called a wave of anti-Semitism sweeping Twitter and called on the company to "take appropriate measures".