Fermez la Bouche: Twitter Trouble in France (and Britain)

Free speech in the European Union is a sometime thing. Meaning, I’m afraid, that it depends on (a) who’s doing the speaking, (b) what that person is speaking about, and (c) what the government of any particular country believes you should be speaking about at any specific time. All these elements can, of course, change (and radically) depending on the subject, the speaker, and most especially the regime that issues the decrees.

Well and good, you might say. It’s up to the government of each sovereign nation to decide what is and is not allowable in that country’s media. If France, for instance, wants to prevent its nation’s news anchors from suggesting their viewers visit Twitter or Facebook to learn more about a particular subject—a prohibition from its broadcasting regulatory agency that came down just last week, by the way—that’s their business. The problem is, however, there is no government decree and no ban on earth any more that is entirely independent, entirely discrete, and lacking in impact on the rights and liberties of other nations.

Why are radio and TV in France now forbidden from mentioning Facebook and Twitter? Because, argues the French regulatory agency, there are national rules that ban surreptitious advertising. You, a French broadcaster, are of course permitted to say, at the conclusion of some news footage, “Follow us, s’il vous plaît, on the social media of the Internet.” And you are also allowed to say, “Facebook’s stock sank to new lows on the Bourse, but what can you expect from such a miserable American company…”

However,—c’est tout. The Gallic gnomes have spoken. Oh—and also, they don’t consider banning the words Twitter or Facebook over the airwaves during a newscast to be … banning. It’s actually “encouragement.” I’m not kidding. (Sample quote from Christine Kelly, a spokeswoman for the regulatory agency, who spoke to Agence France-Press: “We encourage the use of social networks. It’s not a question of banning.”)

Now let’s examine whether any of us should be sticking up for the rights of Twitter. In Britain, some local town hall has just paid 75,000 pounds to a pricey law firm to launch an international lawsuit in order to get Twitter to unmask an anonymous blogger who had posted a lot of critical comments on the site. Comments critical of … certain council members in South Tyneside, which as the Daily Telegraph crisply points out, “is in one of Britain’s most deprived areas.” The onetime anonymous blogger called himsef “Mr. Monkey,” and in his blogs he accused certain council members of drug taking and fiddling expenses.

And guess what? Twitter capitulated! And Twitter happens to be based in California. And that pretty much exempts it from frivolous and idiotic libel suits from the easily bruised egos of certain British politicians across the pond.

Now, it’s not as though those wounded council members didn’t have a suspicion of who the anonymous blogger might be. For days and days, well before Twitter’s cowardly capitulation, the name Ahmed Khan (another council member from a nearby area) popped up as a likely suspect.

Khan had long been openly critical of his colleagues, and the idea that he just might have been clandestinely critical as well did occur to some of them, as they told practically everyone in the British press.

Khan insists he isn’t the author of those blogs, which, bless him, was his business until the day Twitter decided to ruin his life. “I don’t fully understand it but … it not only breaches my human rights, but it potentitally breaches the human rights of anyone who has ever sent me a message on Twitter,” he said recently. “This is Orwellian. It is like something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Well maybe, maybe not. But it sure means—as though we, or certain American congressmen, need any reminding these days—that Twitterers might be better off expressing themselves elsewhere.

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