Social Media Speech: Published Globally, Censored Locally By States, Globally By Platforms

By Marie-Andrée Weiss

Social media sites allow us to instantly share information, opinions and images all around the world. However, not all of these posts are deemed legal by the laws of the different countries, or even by the private rules of the social media sites. Is this censorship?


Seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensées: “Truth this side of the Pyrenees, error this side.” At the time of Pascal, ideas printed in books or pamphlets had to be physically transported across the Pyrenees mountains, the natural border between Spain and France. Now, ideas and pictures can be instantly shared on social media, from France, Spain, and all around the world. Indeed, the “Twitter Rules” state that “We believe that everyone should have the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”

However, sharing ideas on social media is still not unfettered. Free speech can be limited by the laws of the countries or by the terms of use of social media sites, which may or may not be influenced, when choosing which speech to forbid on their platforms, by the law of the country where they are located. Truth this side of your computer screen, error somewhere else in cyberspace?


Censorship by the States by Blocking Social Media

Some countries, fearing the power of social media to inform and help people organise either revolutions or crimes, have chosen to censor it, either selectively or entirely. For instance, Algeria, Tunisia and several other countries blocked Twitter in 2011 during the Arab Spring. Turkey blocked Twitter in 2014, reportedly to prevent further speech about alleged corruption of its Prime Minister. However, the Turkey Constitutional Court ruled that such blocking violated freedom of speech and ordered the ban to be lifted. In November 2015, France’s law authorising a state of emergency was modified to give power to the minister of police to interrupt any online communication service “inducing to commit acts of terrorism or vindicating them”.  North Korea announced in March 2016 that it has permanently blocked access to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

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Marie-Andrée Weiss is an attorney admitted in New York, where she practices intellectual property, privacy, and social media law. She has also passed the French bar. This article stems from work she is doing as a Fellow of the Stanford-Vienna Transatlantic Technology Law Forum to research transatlantic views regarding free speech on social media.

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