French anti-racist groups on Tuesday said they were launching wide-ranging legal action following a wave of anti-Semitic posts on microblogging site Twitter.
The move follows an explosion last week in the use of the Twitter hashtag #unbonjuif - meaning “a good Jew” - to spread anti-Semitic jokes online.
By October 10, the hashtag was trending third in France (meaning it was the third most popular tagged subject on the site in the country) and a deluge of offensive posts -- as well as tweets decrying the racist tone of many of the comments -- continued for days.
And with anti-Semitic hate crimes on the rise in France, organisations like SOS Racisme and the French Jewish Students Union (UEJF) said they were determined pursue those that took part through the courts.
“We are taking this extremely seriously,” said SOS Racisme director Guillaume Ayne. “There is a deep-rooted anti-Semitism in France, and there is a very small step between racist words and racist acts.”
Ayne told FRANCE 24 that SOS Racisme’s lawyers were exploring “all avenues for legal action” to respond to the tweets, which have raised issues relating to the use of social networks and blogs, and the application of France’s strict laws against racism and anti-Semitism.
“We absolutely have to tell people that just because they are sitting behind a computer, they can’t assume they’ll get away with making racist comments,” he said.
One problem, said Ayne, is that sites like Twitter are hosted outside of France, and getting the company to divulge the IP addresses of often anonymous users posting offensive comments can be an arduous -- and expensive -- process.
Meanwhile, individuals complaining of racist or defamatory remarks against them are obliged to make a complaint to the police, hire lawyers and pursue the case through the courts, which is expensive and no guarantee of success.
‘Sue, sue, sue’
According to French lawyer and online media specialist Gérard Haas, Twitter, as a publisher, is legally responsible for the content of its website, just as much as its individual contributors.
He told FRANCE 24 that the only solution for anti-racism organisations was to target individual tweeters and “sue, sue, sue” in response to last week’s anti-Semitic Twitter binge.
“Twitter has to improve its reaction to events like these so that the justice system can quickly identify who has made posts that are illegal under French anti-racism laws,” he said.
“Organisations that have the resources to take people to court should do so, in the greatest numbers possible, to send out a strong message that the freedom of the Internet does not mean carte blanche to break the law.”
On Tuesday, the French Jewish Students Union said they were due to lodge a complaint at a Paris court [the Tribunal de Grande Instance], with a demand that Twitter remove references to the hashtag, provide the IP addresses of offenders and delete the offensive tweets.
EUJF President Jonathan Hayoun added: “If the court accepts the complaint, it will demand a response from Twitter within 48 hours. If that doesn’t happen, we will go after Twitter itself as the responsible publisher.”
Hayoun insisted that the legal action was not intended to hamstring the hugely popular social networking and micro-blogging site.
“But Twitter cannot become a zone where people behave with impunity,” he told FRANCE 24. “Everyone has to take legal responsibility for their actions and statements, wherever they are made, and whichever racial or religious group they offend.”
Thus far, Twitter has not responded to requests for comment.