A police officer shows a Nazi flag at a Sept. 25 news conference in Hanover,… (Alexander Koerner / Hannoversche…)
BERLIN — Twitter on Thursday blocked users in Germany from viewing the messages of a neo-Nazi group as the company for the first time withheld content in a specific country under a policy aimed at complying with local laws while allowing free speech.
Twitter used its "country-withheld content" policy to block the account of a right-wing group called Besseres Hannover, or Better Hannover, which was banned by the German state of Lower Saxony for spreading nationalist socialist ideology and undermining free democracy.
Twitter general counsel Alex Macgillivray confirmed that it was the first time the company had blocked access by enforcing the policy, which was announced in January. Twitter users outside Germany could still view the group's messages.
"Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently," Macgillivray posted on Twitter.
Hannover police had asked the microblogging site to enforce the government ban on the group in a letter dated Sept. 25. The letter said the state had seized the group's assets and was closing down its social networking accounts.
The state attorney's office in Lower Saxony has launched an investigation of Better Hannover on suspicion of inciting racial hatred and forming a criminal association, according to the letter. Denying the Holocaust and the use of Nazi symbols and slogans are crimes in Germany.
Twitter, meanwhile, thrives on open, unfiltered dialogue. An Arab Social Media report released by the Dubai School of Government in the United Arab Emirates said last year that social networking sites Twitter and Facebook played an influential role in the "Arab Spring" uprisings.
Some observers said that blocking the German group on Twitter raises concern about free speech. Such bans could be used by governments to suppress activists, they said.
"It risks being an open invitation to both democratic and authoritarian regimes to ask for censorship," said Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of London-based Index on Censorship, which promotes free speech. "Maybe rather than trying to switch off the whole network like the government did in Egypt, they will go to Twitter and Facebook with court orders."
On its official Web page, Twitter maintains that it aims to respect users' expression and applicable local laws. It "strongly believes that the open and free exchange of information has a positive global impact."
Rayasam is a special correspondent.