Twitter, which has assiduously branded itself as an advocate of free speech, has agreed to identify several users who posted anti-Semitic comments on its service, and whom French authorities are seeking to prosecute for violating that country's anti-hate laws.
The case shows how challenging it is for Silicon Valley companies to champion the free speech rights of users while complying with the laws of countries where they do business. It also highlights Silicon Valley's Europe problem: the Continent represents a large and lucrative market, but its lawmakers, regulators and courts have hounded the industry in recent months on issues as varied as privacy and antitrust law.
For months, Twitter had fought a court order obtained by a private French citizens' group demanding that the company turn over the user information. But on Friday, the company said it had handed over the information to a prosecutor in Paris, in response to a law enforcement request. By turning over the information, Twitter said, it had ended a lawsuit related to the court order brought by the private group.
In a statement Friday, the company said: "in response to a valid legal request, Twitter has provided the prosecutor of Paris, Presse et Libertés Publiques section of the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance, with data that may enable the identification of certain users that the Vice-Prosecutor believes have violated French law."
The statement took pains to note that Twitter was providing the information to law enforcement through a legal request, not to the private group.
The case has important implications for Twitter users worldwide, as governments increasingly try to extract user information from the service. Legal experts say Twitter could have insisted that the French authorities seek to extract the user data by filing a claim in the United States, where the company is based.
Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, said that while Twitter had demonstrated its commitment to protecting free speech on many occasions, it was under pressure to meet nations' demands for information on their citizens, both in America and abroad. Many companies face this pressure, and Twitter is all the more vulnerable now that it has an office in Paris, making its employees and assets there subject to French law.
"Governments have an unquenchable thirst for more information about their citizens, and Internet companies, as repositories of data, are going to be on the list of targets," Mr. Goldman said. He added: "We are in no position to criticize another government for demanding data on users. Our government is doing that about us every day."
The French Union of Jewish Students and SOS Racisme had sought the identities of the users, who had used pseudonyms, and in January a French court ordered Twitter to hand over the data. Twitter appealed, and lost, in June. The French student union filed a $50 million civil suit against the company, saying that it had failed to comply with the court order. On Friday, Jonathan Hayoun, president of the group, said that "Twitter has finally accepted its responsibility for hate prevention as a prominent player on the Web."
In the second half of 2012, Twitter received over 1,000 requests from government agencies in the United States and abroad, from Australia to Turkey. It complied to varying degrees: 69 percent of the time with respect to requests from American authorities, 33 percent from the Dutch, and never in the case of countries like India, Israel or Turkey. Twitter on Friday said it did not have a uniform policy on how it treated law enforcement requests. "Requests for Twitter user information, whether domestic or international, are evaluated on a case-by-case basis," the company said in a statement.
"There was more fighting Twitter could have done and chose not to," said Christopher Wolf, a partner at Hogan Lovells who represents American technology companies, including in Europe. He added: "It is an episode that gives me some pause over the potential breadth of jurisdiction by a European government over a U.S. Internet company."
Twitter's legal feuds with foreign governments could muddle its expansion overseas. Running afoul of the law in any country potentially makes it vulnerable to having its assets seized and its employees arrested.
Complicating matters, Twitter, like other similar companies, has a sort of jurisprudence of its own, laid out in its Terms of Service. It does not explicitly address hate speech, but stipulates that "users are allowed to post content, including potentially inflammatory content, provided they do not violate the Twitter Terms of Service and Rules." Those include a prohibition against "direct, specific threats of violence against others."
The French case was prompted by a spate of anti-Semitic posts late last year. There were also jokes about the Holocaust and comments denigrating Muslims. Holocaust denial is a crime in France, and the country has strict laws against hate speech. Twitter removed the posts in France after the complaints.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.