EFF-logo-plain-300Last week, Twitter “micro-censored” two accounts at the request of the Russian government — accounts that were associated with Ukraine’s Right Sector, an armed neo-fascist paramilitary group that played a central role in the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych last winter. The group is now involved in deadly freelance combat operations in east Ukraine.

As I wrote at the time, these two accounts contained tweets that made calls to armed violence, gloated about the deaths of anti-Kiev rebels and glorified terrorists involved in gruesome attacks on Russian soil, including Moscow. Russia demanded Twitter remove or block the accounts in accordance with a Russian law banning Internet companies from hosting content that “contains appeals to riots, extremist activities, participation in mass action designed to break the law…”

Twitter promptly complied with the request, a move that prompted outrage from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In a blog post, EFF rebuked Twitter for caving so easily to Russian law:

In 2012, when Twitter announced in a blog post that it was launching a system that would allow the company to take down content on a country-by-country basis—as opposed to taking it down across the entire Twitter network—EFF defended that decision as the least terrible option.

We pointed out that companies cannot be compelled to follow court orders from countries where they do not have significant assets or employees. As a result, we could expect that Twitter would comply only with court orders from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Japan, and Germany…

…Twitter has no employees or assets in Russia, so it should not have to comply with a Russian court order at all.  And the order isn’t even about a Russian account—it’s a [sic] Ukranian one. Worse yet, Pravy Sektor’s account is plainly political. If Twitter won’t stand up for political speech in a country where independent media is increasingly under attack, what will it stand for?

I’m glad that to see EFF take a principled stance on political free speech. As uncomfortable as the Right Sector tweets make me, I’m a firm believer in the need to protect all political speech and self-expression, regardless of how unpleasant or disgusting it may be.

But here’s the problem: At no point in its criticism does EFF explain to its supporters what Right Sector stands for. Without that context, users are left to conclude that the Russian government is trying to silence all dissent, and that Twitter is gladly complying.

If EFF’s position is that ugly, inciting speech should still be protected speech, then it should say that explicitly. If you are gonna defend a violent neo-fascist group’s right to free speech on principle, you have to explain that you defend this right for all people and all ideologies —  even violent neo-fascists.

But EFF didn’t do that. Instead, it simply ignored Right Sector’s odious and scary politics. It described the armed paramilitary group as “plainly political” and a “nationalist political party characterized by the Russian government as Neo-Nazi fascists,” which made it seem like Right Sector’s violent neo-fascist tendencies are nothing but a Kremlin smear.

They’re not.

Right Sector is about as scary a group as you can find in Ukraine. It is an armed, well-trained and disciplined paramilitary group that worships Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian supremacist leader who collaborated with the Nazis, fought to establish an ethnically pure Ukraine and whose followers were responsible for liquidating Jews and Poles.

Right Sector is closely tied to a network of Ukrainian ultra-nationalist/fascist organizations and political groups, including the Svoboda Party. Svoboda (which means “freedom”) is openly fascist and pro-Nazi. Until 2004, it was called the Social-National Party of Ukraine — a overt nod to Hitler’s National Socialist party — and required members to be ethnically Ukrainian.

The current political aims of Right Sector include establishing a pure Ukrainian state based on traditional Ukrainian language, religion and traditions. As one rank-and-file Right Sector fighter told BBC’s Newsnight, they want “a pure nation — not like under Hitler, but in a way a little bit like that.”

This group doesn’t just want a permit to legally goose-step up and down the main drag dressed in spiffy Nazi uniforms. It is ready to fight for its cause.

Dmytro Yarosh, Right Sector’s mysterious and intimidating leader, said in an interview that his group will deal “in a hostile way” with anyone who resists “the Ukrainian people’s national liberation struggle.” Right Sector’s paramilitary forces are at this moment involved in active combat operations against Ukrainians in east Ukraine, and the group vows to take their fight to Russian soil.

Russia has suite of laws forbidding the publishing and distribution of “extremist” content. Supposedly designed to fight terrorism, these laws have been used to stifle political speech and dissent. I have firsthand experience with this. In 2008, the Moscow-based satirical newspaper I co-edited, The eXile, was accused by a Kremlin agency of spreading extremism. Four Kremlin agents descended on our office to conduct an “unplanned urgent audit” of our editorial content, which ultimately forced the paper to close down after 11 years in business.

I’m against these “extremism” laws. And I’ve written before about how they are used and abused by the Russian government to clamp down on free speech. But if these laws were to genuinely apply to anything, Right Sector would pretty much fit the “extremism” label.

It’s great to see EFF talking about political censorship on the corporate Internet. But without explaining Right Sector’s odious ideology, EFF isn’t just standing up for free speech, it’s also whitewashing a bunch of violent neo-fascists.

There’s likely a reason for that. Reading EFF’s statement, it’s clear that it isn’t taking a principled ACLU-style stand for freedom of expression online. While the group criticizes Twitter, it doesn’t argue that censorship is always wrong regardless of how unwholesome or violent or racist or fascist that speech may be.

Nope, EFF’s just talking business, while pushing a chauvinistic Silicon Valley legal utopia: a world where only American law applies to global Internet content, regardless of local customs or regulations  — unless of course a company’s physical assets are threatened with seizure.

Take a look…

In 2012, when Twitter announced in a blog post that it was launching a system that would allow the company to take down content on a country-by-country basis—as opposed to taking it down across the entire Twitter network—EFF defended that decision as the least terrible option.

We pointed out that companies cannot be compelled to follow court orders from countries where they do not have significant assets or employees. As a result, we could expect that Twitter would comply only with court orders from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Japan, and Germany…

…Twitter has no employees or assets in Russia, so it should not have to comply with a Russian court order at all.  [emphasis mine]

In other words, EFF thinks it’s totally cool for Twitter to block illegal neo-nazi content in Germany, but not when the company does the same thing in Russia.

To EFF, political censorship on the Internet is a human rights travesty — unless it’s bad for business. Then it becomes a matter of legal and fiduciary duty to company’s shareholders. How’s that for a principled stance on free speech?