Elon Musk, framing his planned acquisition of Twitter as a bid to uphold free speech online, has called for the platform to roll back its content moderation efforts. Failure to do so, he claims, would “fundamentally undermine democracy.”
Last week, the billionaire investor and entrepreneur clarified his definition of free speech as “that which matches the law,” adding, “If people want less free speech, they will ask governments to pass laws to that effect.”
Citizens in many countries, however, have little ability to influence laws, which can be tools of political repression in authoritarian states and troubled democracies. Musk is correct that Twitter needs to improve its content moderation practices, but if it were to adopt this approach, it could become a powerful enforcer of government censorship around the world.
By equating free speech with legal speech, Elon Musk will do more to harm expression than to promote it.
Musk’s proposed takeover of Twitter comes at a time when governments are actively seeking to increase authority over digital platforms. As detailed in Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net 2021” report, officials in at least 24 countries across the democratic spectrum have pursued new laws or rules governing how digital platforms should manage content. While some of these measures bolster transparency and due process requirements, the majority criminalize broad categories of speech or require compliance with censorship as a condition for market access.
In India, home to Twitter’s third-largest user base, Intermediary Rules enacted in February 2021 require major platforms to remove illegal content, including speech that threatens public order and decency or undermines friendly relations with other states. Such vaguely defined categories have allowed India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to suppress the speech of journalists, activists, opposition figures and ordinary users. In April 2021, Twitter and Facebook parent Meta Platforms were ordered to censor criticism of the Indian government’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, including shortages of basic medical supplies. Both companies, at least in part, complied.
Meanwhile, regulations adopted in November 2020 in Indonesia—Twitter’s fifth-largest user base—require platforms to remove speech that violates domestic law, creates communal anxiety or disturbs public order. Under this broad directive, the Indonesian government has previously justified censorship of LGBT+ content, including forcing messaging apps to remove LGBT+ emojis and demanding that Instagram deactivate an account focused on the experiences of queer Muslims in the country.
In some countries, governments have co-opted another aspect of social media’s power—instead of requiring companies to censor content, they compel the platforms to serve as vectors for disinformation and other harmful speech. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Twitter’s fourth-largest user base, championed rules, later nullified by the Supreme Court, that would have barred Twitter from removing falsehoods about the legitimacy of upcoming October elections—speech that Bolsonaro himself has promoted ahead of a potential defeat. Twitter was banned outright in Nigeria for removing a post by the country’s president that seemed to threaten violence against supporters of a secessionist movement. The government only unblocked the platform in January after Twitter agreed to a list of concessions, including a pledge to consider national security in its content moderation decisions.
Twitter has too often bowed to the demands of repressive governments. In 2014, to end blocking by the Turkish government, Twitter deployed its “withheld content” policy, restricting access to specific posts only in Turkey. The country has since become a global leader in using the policy to demand Twitter restrict speech for people based in Turkey.
Musk’s chosen platform isn’t the only one that has been drafted into this global repression campaign—other technology companies have also buckled under government pressure. Meta agreed in 2020 to considerably expand its censorship of “anti-state” posts in Vietnam after government-owned telecommunications companies slowed internet traffic for Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Apple removed an estimated 55,000 applications from its App Store in China, including hundreds of virtual private network providers that previously allowed users to circumvent the country’s so-called Great Firewall and access uncensored content.
Twitter has made welcome progress in being more transparent about its practices and aligning its content moderation with free expression and other human rights standards. The company’s trust and safety team has also increased its efforts to address harassment and hate speech across the platform. Much more is needed, and it is imperative that this work continue.
Twitter’s current policy says it may restrict tweets for local users if it determines that a government request, such as one that’s issued by an appropriate state authority, complies with local law. Sometimes the company pushes back. In February 2021, Twitter refused to comply with a demand by the Indian government to restrict access to accounts of journalists and activists during mass demonstrations against agricultural reforms. Twitter may also remove content if it concludes a post does not align with its terms of service.
By suggesting that free speech equates to legal speech, though, Musk could weaken or eliminate this review process and embolden state officials and their supporters to demand more censorship or more draconian laws. Such a policy would also set a dangerous precedent for other companies to do the same, perpetuating and deepening the global assault on free expression.
To better protect free speech online, Musk could start by ensuring the independence of and increasing resources for Twitter’s teams focused on content moderation, trust and safety, civic integrity and public policy more broadly. The platform should fully incorporate the Santa Clara Principles, a set of minimum standards for content moderation, including bolstering teams’ cultural competency and geographic and linguistic diversity. Twitter should also provide more transparency about advertising and recommendation systems, strengthen human rights due-diligence reporting and build deeper partnerships with civil society groups in the countries where it operates.
Musk should also give more resources to legal and other teams to assess the legality of each government request and to resist those that would undermine human rights. When pushing back against repressive orders, Twitter should be prepared to shoulder fines, leverage business interests and support strategic litigation efforts designed to overturn restrictive laws. Even buying time in responding to state requests can help limit censorship’s impact.
The world sorely needs innovative ideas on how to make content moderation support both reliable information and free expression. Returning to an outdated and simplistic model of free speech online—one that either encourages disinformation and harassment or blindly defers to country-by-country legal restrictions—will do little to advance this work and much to set it back.
Allie Funk serves as a Research Director for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House, where she focuses on free expression, privacy, surveillance, and censorship. She leads Freedom House's technology and democracy initiative, including “Freedom on the Net,” Election Watch for the Digital Age and work related to protecting a free and open internet. She also represents Freedom House on the Freedom Online Coalition's Advisory Network, and her writing has been published in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Wired, The Hill, The Diplomat, and Just Security, among others.