This article is part of the Free Speech Projecta collaboration between Future Tense and the American University Washington College of Law’s Tech, Law, & Security program that examines how technology influences the way we think about speech.
Elon Musk’s misguided, months-long attempt to buy Twitter (which is now an attempt to, well, not) was such an effective headline that it was easy to miss another big piece of social media news from early July: that he would be sue the government of the country that provides its third-largest user base.
India has long had a strained relationship with Twitter, but it has particularly soured over the past year and a half as Narendra Modi’s administration has increasingly interfered with the country’s media and cracked down on speech. she doesn’t care about. As I wrote a year ago, India’s battle against American tech companies has reached a new fever pitch in 2021, after its IT ministry imposed rules allowing the government to probe social media posts and encrypted messages, demand anonymous user identification details and prosecute companies that refuse to comply. Most big tech companies like Amazon and Google have chosen to cooperate with the government, and as a member of Modi’s cabinet told parliament on July 19, the administration has successfully blocked 78 news channels and 560 links on YouTube Last year. Twitter attempted to resist government bloc orders in May, only to finally acquiesce. The platform’s new legal action against India is therefore huge, with potential implications not only for social media and digital privacy in India, but also for users’ very free speech rights under a government. who constantly strives to restrain them.
The 5 of July, Reuters reported, Twitter has asked the High Court of the Indian state of Karnataka “to overturn certain government orders to remove content from the social media platform”. (Aptly, the courthouse is based in the city of Bangalore, often referred to as India’s Silicon Valley.) Twitter said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration had asked it to comply with 39 blocking requests, including restricting tweets from opposition political parties. In addition, according to Reuters, Twitter claimed that the government had threatened to initiate criminal proceedings against Twitter India’s Chief Compliance Officer if he failed to comply with the demands. Just a day before filing this complaint, Twitter had accepted India’s instructions.
The lawsuit marks the first time the company has sought legal redress in its years-long battle with the Modi regime and follows a series of India-based controversies that have plagued the platform for weeks, including:
It’s not just Twitter right now: India is even crack down on Chinese smartphone companies, by CNN. But Twitter has been one of India’s most consistent targets: its offices were once the target of police raidsand withdrawal orders from the Modi government have made nearly 20% of all such requests received by Twitter globally. And considering that journalists have long used the platform to document the suppression of press freedom in the country, news outlets view the Twitter case as a kind of zero hour for Indian free speech rights. The editorial board of Washington Post- for whom Ayyub is a contributing writer â wrote on July 10 that this legal fight âCould Mark a Pivotal Moment for Internet Speech Around the Worldâ; digital policy experts said Wired that the case”could have massive ripple effectsâ, warning that a loss for Twitterâ could allow [Indiaâs] government to censor a wide range of platforms and set a global precedentâ; a Los Angeles Times editorial argued that a Twitter victory would bolster the cases of other free speech lawsuits against the Modi administration.
Still, now is not the perfect time for Twitter to wage this battle against the Indian government. As the New York Times reported, Elon Musk’s dramatic entanglements with the network have left him in a weaker overall state, with frightened advertisers, money troubles brought to light and sagging employee morale. The company is too sue the CEO of Tesla for reneging on their agreement to buy the network, with a five-day trial scheduled for October.
It should be noted that if Musk had gone through the affair, he may not have had the best relationship with one of Twitter’s biggest markets. In May, after years of negotiations for Tesla to set up an Indian manufacturing plant, Musk said he refuse to build it unless India also allows his company to sell and service imported cars. Musk also wanted lower import taxes than the government was willing to allow. Considering that India already has a booming electric vehicle marketwith international deals to boot, Tesla doesn’t really have a bargaining chip here.
More importantly, in April, Musk claimed that Twitter had become overly censored and that, as “free speech absolutistit would change content moderation policies to supposedly be less punitive. That’s fine until you have to follow the laws of other countries; indeed, Musk tweeted in May that his âpreference is to approximate the laws of the countries in which Twitter operates.â A supposed absolutist like Musk should have every interest in resisting Indian censorship. But his stated approach to respecting local laws would mean less fighting the government than previous Twitter executives, such as BuzzFeed News‘ Pranav Dixit wrote. It doesn’t even fit into the several other dictatorial nations in which Twitter operates. Musk allegedly insisted that Twitter donate money to challenge laws in India and other countries on behalf of journalists, who aren’t exactly his favorite people? Or would he have simply agreed to all the thousands of withdrawal requests from the Indian government willy-nilly? Could he have simply ignored the virulent Islamophobia, misinformation and incitement to violence rampant on Indian Twitter, even letting it fester?
Twitter’s stance towards India’s speech crackdowns hasn’t always been good, but it could be worse for the country’s most persecuted populations under Musk. After all, the Indian government doesn’t seem to care much about hate speech, and neither does Musk, given his view of content moderation and the law. Inasmuch as An Indian tech activist told the Washington Post in Mayit’s likely that “under Musk, the hate speech we see will be allowed to fester and grow â and it’s not something the government will want to stop.”
Nitish Pahwa is a web editor at Slate.