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German Twitter blocks neo-Nazi group

A flag that was confiscated from the neo-Nazi group.

Hannoversche Allgemeine /ap

A flag that was confiscated from the neo-Nazi group.

BERLIN — Twitter has blocked users in Germany from access to the account of a neo-Nazi group that is banned by the government here, renewing concerns about the future of free speech on the site.

The decision to block access to the account here was the first time that Twitter acted on a policy known as ‘‘country withheld content,’’ announced in January, which the company says is meant to balance freedom of expression with compliance with local laws.

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“Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently,’’ Alex MacGillivray, the company’s general counsel, said Thursday. A German government spokesman confirmed that it was the first time the policy had been used.

German authorities in Lower Saxony state last month banned the group, Besseres Hannover, which means ‘‘Better Hannover.’’ German police requested in a letter that the group’s account be shut down entirely. Instead, access was blocked only in Germany.

‘‘It’s not a great thing, but it’s a way of minimizing censorship,’’ said Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. ‘‘It’s better for Twitter if they can keep countries happy without having to take the whole thing down.’’

Twitter users outside Germany can still view the neo-Nazi group’s messages.

In part because of its Nazi past, Germany has an approach to free speech quite different from that of the United States. In Germany, use of Nazi symbols and slogans can be criminally prosecuted.

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