BERLIN (AP) — Twitter has for the first time blocked an account using a new tool that allows it to bar content in individual countries, shutting out a banned German neo-Nazi group at the behest of local authorities.
Twitter spokesman Dirk Hensen told The Associated Press in an email Thursday that the account (at)hannoverticker has been blocked only in Germany, where its content is considered illegal.
"At the beginning of the year Twitter announced the so-called 'country withheld content' function, which enables us to remove illegal content in a particular country while leaving it available for the rest of the world," he said.
"In doing this we place great value on transparency; in the case of the account (at)hannoverticker we used this function for the first time."
For further details, he pointed to the Twitter account of the company's general counsel Alex Macgillivray, who said in a tweet that the site's administrators "never want to withhold content, good to have tools to do it narrowly and transparently."
The (at)hannoverticker account is used by a fringe far-right group, Besseres Hannover — Better Hannover, which Lower Saxony's state government banned last month on the ground that it was promoting Nazi ideals in an attempt to undermine German's democracy.
In a letter posted by Twitter, Lower Saxony authorities asked the company to "close this account immediately and not to open any substitute accounts for the organization Besseres Hannover."
The letter said the regional Interior Ministry's ban included an order for "the closure of all user accounts of the Besseres Hannover group."
Because of its Nazi past, Germany has strict laws prohibiting the use of related symbols and slogans — like the display of the swastika, or saying "heil Hitler."
Lower Saxony Interior Ministry spokesman Frank Rasche said the ban applied to Besseres Hannover's entire online presence and that similar letters were sent to YouTube — which also complied — and the U.S.-based Internet service provider that hosted the group's website.
That site also seemed to be down Thursday, though Rasche said he was not aware of any reply from the ISP.
"The Web page is hosted in the U.S.A., and that is difficult because it is known there that extreme right speech is not criminal as it is here," he said.
The last tweets on the now-blocked Twitter account came on the day Besseres Hannover was banned, Sept. 25. In that, the group equated living in present-day Germany with being "rudely awoken and finding yourself in East Germany" — a communist dictatorship.
When accessing (at)hannoverticker from Berlin on Thursday, there was a simple notice saying "this account has been withheld in: Germany."
Twitter announced the blocking function in January, insisting its commitment to free speech remains firm, despite global outrage that the social media tool of choice for dissidents and activists was being limited.
In this case, Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of the Britain-based free speech advocacy group Index on Censorship, said Twitter's decision was more about German laws prohibiting extreme right speech than the social media company's policy.
"We would argue it is perfectly fair to ban speech that is direct incitement to violence, but not to ban speech that is just extreme and doesn't incite violence," she said.
"However many years after the second world war, the question is, is it still appropriate, and whether it was ever appropriate (in Germany) — that's the source of this decision today, rather than Twitter being where one should point the finger."
Earlier on HuffPost:
Confessionals, Office Gossip
If you're angry at your boss or playing hookey from work, you probably shouldn't tweet about it. Furthermore, warns Amber Yoo of <a href="http://www.privacyrights.org/" target="_hplink">PrivacyRights.org</a>, tweeting your opinions about work-related topics can lead to trouble in-office. "Unless they are glowing, don't Tweet opinions about your company, clients, products and services. Employers are increasingly monitoring employee conduct on Twitter," says Yoo. "A <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/15/fired-over-twitter-tweets_n_645884.html#s112801&title=Cisco_Fatty_Loses" target="_hplink">tweet could cost you your job</a> if you aren't careful."
Intimate Personal Information
Details from your personal history are best left out of your Twitter feed. You can put yourself at risk for identity theft by revealing your birth date and place, your social security number, your maiden name or your mother's maiden name. Twitter also advises users to be wary of phishing schemes. "People are not always who they claim to be on their Twitter profile and you should be wary of any communication that asks for your private contact information, personal information, or passwords," according to the <a href="http://support.twitter.com/entries/115246-safety-privacy-cyberbullying-and-cyberharassment" target="_hplink">Twitter Help Center</a>.
Twitter's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/12/twitter-location-tool-exp_n_496464.html" target="_hplink">geolocation tool</a> can help you broadcast your location without squandering precious text space. However, geotags could potentially be used by stalkers to <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-08-08/foursquare-and-stalking-is-geotagging-dangerous/" target="_hplink">secretly track</a> someone's location. The good news is that you can <a href="http://support.twitter.com/articles/78525-about-the-tweet-location-feature" target="_hplink">turn this tool off</a> at any time.
Burglars have admitted to using social networks to plan <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/20/burglars-using-twitter-fa_n_652666.html" target="_hplink">home invasions</a>. If you share a public tweet saying that you'll be on vacation for a week, you're also telling your followers that you've left your home untended.
"Be careful not to share your daily routine," says Amber Yoo of <a href="http://www.privacyrights.org/" target="_hplink">PrivacyRights.org</a>. "Tweeting about walking to work, where you go on your lunch break, or when you head home is risky because it may allow a criminal to track you."
Your Kids' Names And Routines
Children can be easy targets for online predators and identity thieves. You can keep your kids safe by leaving their names out of your Twitter feeds and refraining from tweeting about where you pick them up or drop them off every day.
Insurance companies have been known to check Twitter when <a href="http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2011/02/28/bisb0228.htm" target="_hplink">investigating compensation claims</a> and may even look to social media when <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/22/facebook-twitter-users-co_n_471548.html" target="_hplink">assessing a customer's risks</a>. Tweeting about frequent climbing trips, for example, could result in a premiums hike. If you've filed for disability compensation, your insurance company could search for your tweets about high-risk activities and use them to supplement a fraud case against you.
Personal Attacks On Other Users
The Twitter Help Center <a href="http://support.twitter.com/entries/115246-safety-privacy-cyberbullying-and-cyberharassment" target="_hplink">advises</a> users not to engage with bullies: <blockquote>You may encounter people on Twitter who you don't like or who say things that you disagree with or find offensive. Please remain courteous, even if the other people are not. Retaliation can reinforce bad behavior and only encourages bullies. Don't forward or retweet bullying or mean messages. Remember that the things you say can be very hurtful to other people. Don't turn into a bully yourself.</blockquote>
It's a risky move to tweet photos that show what you look like and what your home looks like. Including geotags with these types of photos could put you at risk. Moreover, some smartphones <a href="http://www.switched.com/2010/08/24/i-can-stalk-u-reveals-twitpics-as-creepy-tracking-devices/" target="_hplink">automatically embed geolocation data</a> into your photos, and you may not realize how much private data you're revealing with a simple snapshot. According to <a href="http://www.privacyrights.org/geotagging-privacy" target="_hplink">PrivacyRights.org</a>, "Your real-time location may indicate your home and work addresses, your commuting patterns, what religious institution you visit, how often you go to a doctor, political rallies you attend or whether you are seeking the advice of a lawyer."
Racy Or Inappropriate Photos
"Employers routinely check out Twitter prior to hiring an individual, and have referenced social networking as helping them make choices on future employees," says <a href="http://www.reputation.com/" target="_hplink">Reputation.com</a> founder Michael Fertik. "Use better than average common sense when uploading photos to Twitter - if you wouldn't want your boss or grandmother to see it, it's probably a good idea to hold tight and keep it offline."
Every Detail Of Your Life
Some Twitterers annoy other users by tweeting constantly. Sifting through minutiae on Twitter can be a chore. "It gets annoying and takes space and attention away from other Twitterers' links and observations," <a href="http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2345283,00.asp" target="_hplink">writes</a> PCWorld. "If you have that much to say, maybe it belongs on a blog."