Elon Musk’s Twitter Plans Would Mean Less Free Speech for Many
In March 2021, a Turkish court ordered the news site Diken to remove a critical story about an ally of the country’s president, Recep Tayip Erdogan. Yaman Akdeniz, a Turkish lawyer and digital rights activist, posted a tweet urging his followers to read the story before the decision went into effect. Then the court ruled that his tweet also needed to be removed. But for more than a year Twitter has defied the order, allowing the tweet to remain up.
If Elon Musk had owned Twitter then, Adkeniz might have been out of luck. Though the SpaceX founder’s purchase of the company has been plagued by issues, it still appears that he is poised to take over the platform. Despite his insistence that he will make Twitter a haven for free speech, Musk’s vision for content moderation is to comply with local laws. “My preference is to hew close to the laws of countries in which Twitter operates,” he tweeted on May 9. “If the citizens want something banned, then pass a law to do so, otherwise it should be allowed.”
In the US, which has a highly permissive definition of free speech protected by the First Amendment, Musk’s approach would force Twitter to allow all manner of content that is, as lawyers say, “awful but lawful,” including overt racism and doxing. But protections for free speech are weaker in many other countries, including Turkey, India, and Russia. A standard of only allowing what is permitted by law would result in less free speech on Twitter, not more.
In many countries, Twitter is rarely the most popular platform, but its function as a hub for activists, journalists, and politicians means “it punches above its weight in its role in shaping public discourse,” says Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Internet Freedom Foundation in Delhi.
Currently, Twitter does frequently comply with government requests to block or remove material, especially if it violates the company’s terms of service. But the platform also often rejects takedown requests, as it did in Akdeniz’s case. Between January and July of 2021, Twitter complied with legal demands just over 54 percent of the time, but the rate varies heavily from country to country. In Russia, where Twitter responds to only 8 percent of government takedown requests, the company refused to censor content related to the 2021 protests in support of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. This led to swift reprisal: Roskomnadzor, the government entity overseeing technology and communications, throttled the platform. (The government claimed that this was because Twitter was refusing to remove content related to child exploitation and suicide, but it had already publicly threatened to punish social media companies for allowing content that encouraged people to protest.)
“In cases where they think a request doesn’t comply with a country’s local law or their own reading of the local law, they might push back and say they’re not going to comply with it,” says Allie Funk, Freedom House research director for technology and democracy. Companies can also look to documents like Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which protects the right to free expression, says Jason Pielemeier, policy director of the Global Network Initiative. “This is a document that many countries in the world, not just the US, have ostensibly signed on to and agreed upon,” he says. Twitter declined to comment in detail about its current approach to government requests.
All US-based social media companies have to comply with the rules that countries set to operate within their borders. But many countries have laws that allow governments to crack down on vaguely defined categories of speech, making it easy to silence dissent and criticism. For example, India’s new IT rules prohibit material that threatens “public order” or decency. A regulation in Indonesia is similarly capacious. “Twitter is one of few spaces in Russia for free expression,” says Natalia Krapiva, technology legal counsel at Access Now. “In places like Russia, laws are intentionally broad and vague, which means the government can choose how and when they want to enforce it.”