In March 2021, a Turkish court has ordered the news site Diken to withdraw a critical story about an ally of the country’s president, Recep Tayip Erdogan. Yaman Akdeniz, a Turkish lawyer and digital rights activist, published a tweet urging his followers to read the story before the decision takes effect. The court then ruled that his tweet should also be removed. But for more than a year Twitter has challenged order, allowing the tweet to be maintained.
If Elon Musk had owned Twitter, Akdeniz might have been unlucky. Although the purchase of the company by the founder of SpaceX has been affected by problems, it seems that it is still about to take over the platform. Despite his insistence on making Twitter a haven for free speech, Musk’s vision for content moderation is to comply with local laws. “My preference is to cut myself off from the laws of the countries where Twitter operates,” he said he tweeted on May 9th. “If citizens want something to be banned, passing a law to do so, otherwise it should be allowed.”
In the United States, which has a highly permissive definition of freedom of expression protected by the First Amendment, Musk’s approach would force Twitter to allow all sorts of content that is, as lawyers say, “horrible but lawful.” open racism and doxing. But protections for free speech are weaker in many other countries, such as Turkey, India and Russia. A standard of allowing only what is allowed by law would result in less freedom of speech on Twitter, no more.
In many countries, Twitter is rarely the most popular platform, but its role as a hub for activists, journalists and politicians means it “exceeds its weight in its role in shaping public discourse,” says Prateek Waghre, director of Internet Policies. Freedom Foundation in Delhi.
Currently, Twitter does frequently comply with government requests block or remove material, especially if it violates the company’s terms of service. But the platform also often rejects withdrawal requests, as it did in Akdeniz’s case. Between January and July 2021, Twitter complied with little more legal requirements 54 percent of the time, but the rate varies greatly from country to country. In Russia, where Twitter only responds to 8% of government withdrawal requests, the company refused to censor content related to the 2021 protests in support of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. This provoked a quick retaliation: Roskomnadzor, the government entity that oversees technology and communications, strangled the platform. (The government claimed this was because Twitter refused to remove content related to child exploitation and suicide, but had already publicly threatened to punish social media companies for allowing content that encouraged people to protest).
“In cases where they think that an application does not comply with a country’s local law or their own reading of local law, they may reject it and say they will not comply,” said Allie Funk, a Freedom House researcher. director of technology and democracy. Businesses can also consult documents such as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the right to free speech, says Jason Pielemeier, policy director of the Global Network Initiative. “This is a document that many countries around the world have apparently signed and accepted, not just the United States,” he says. Twitter declined to comment in detail on its current approach to government petitions.
All U.S.-based social media companies must comply with the rules that countries set for operating within their borders. But many countries have laws that allow governments to repress vaguely defined categories of discourse, making it easier to silence dissent and criticism. For example, India’s new IT regulations prohibit material that threatens “public order” or decency. Regulation in Indonesia is equally broad. “Twitter is one of the few places in Russia for free speech,” said Natalia Krapiva, technology adviser for Access Now. “In places like Russia, the laws are intentionally broad and vague, which means the government can choose how and when it wants to enforce them.”