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Is Twitter breaking French hate-speech laws?

A disturbing rash of racist tweets in France has Twitter facing government criticism and potentially legal trouble in the country, where authorities believe it may be in violation of hate-speech laws.┬áBoth parties are now said to be in ongoing discussion about how to respond to the tide of upsetting messages without stepping on users’ right to free speech, as well as their right to privacy.

The tweets in question center around a number of questionable hashtags, including #SiMonFilsEstGay, #SiMaFilleRameneUnNoir and #UnBonJuif, which translate respectively as “If My Son Was Gay,” “If My Daughter Brought Home A Black Man” and “A Good Jew,” and you can rest assured that none of these are attached to any positive tweets concerning these particular groups. There is also the hashtag #SiJetaisNazi which, yes, translates as “If I Were A Nazi.”

The French government has long argued that these messages fall afoul of the country’s laws regarding the publication of racist, bigoted or otherwise discriminatory hate speech. Last October, French courts ordered Twitter to not only delete the offensive tweets, but also hand over the personal information of those who had used the hashtags in the first place. The company complied with the first part of the legal order, but is having a bit of a problem with the second.

Twitter’s lawyer, Alexandra Neri, has told the court that Twitter cannot comply because the information on the users is held by the company in California, which means that an American court would have to compel the company to release it. “Our concern is not to violate American law in cooperating with the French justice system,” she said, explaining that the company is “not fleeing our responsibility” in refusing to share the information. “Our data is stored in the US, so we must obey the rule of law in that country.”

That isn’t enough for prominent French political figures, who have already gone on to condemn the company in the media for failing to share the information. Writing in French newspaper Le Monde, the French government’s Women’s Minister and spokewoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem appealed to the company to respect the “values of the French republic” and change its mind. Minister for the Digital Economy Fleur Pellerin told LCI TV that it was “in [Twitter's] interest to adapt to the legal, philosophical and ethical culture of the countries in which they’re seeking to develop.”