India tightens grip on social media platforms

India is a globally important market for the social media platform Twitter. Even though in absolute numbers its 23 to 24 million users is small compared to the size of the population of what is now thought to be the world’s most populous country, it is believed to be the platform’s third biggest market after the US and Japan.

Recent events relating to India and Twitter should therefore be taken in context of the country’s importance for Twitter’s owner, Elon Musk.

Even before Musk’s takeover of Twitter in October 2022, Narendra Modi’s government has not been slow to ask the platform to remove content which it disagrees with.

India has been in the top five nations that have asked Twitter to remove content or block accounts for the past three years. In its July 2022 transparency report, Twitter said that 97% of the total global volume of legal demands for such removals in the last half of 2021 originated from five countries: Japan, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, and India.

You could argue that because Twitter has so many users in the country, this is inevitable. However, the US does not feature in this list despite being the biggest market.

The Indian government clearly has a problem with what its critics are saying on Twitter.

In line with the worsening situation for media freedom in the country, India frequently clamps down on what the media is able to say on Twitter. In the last half of 2021, India was the country making the highest number of legal demands relating to the accounts of verified journalists and news outlets, some 114 out of a total of 326 for the period, comfortably ahead of Turkey and Russia.

A new onslaught on what Indians are saying on Twitter may have opened up last week. On 6 April, an amendment to India’s Information Technology Act came into force which now requires social media platforms to fact-check any post relating to the Indian government’s business with the Press Information Bureau, a “fact-checking” unit that is part of the country’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

The threat to social media platforms who do not comply with this is that they would then no longer be protected by the country’s safe harbour regulations under which they are currently not liable for what their users post.

The Indian digital liberties organisation Internet Freedom Foundation says it is “deeply concerned” by the amendments.

It said in a statement: “Assigning any unit of the government such arbitrary, overbroad powers to determine the authenticity of online content bypasses the principles of natural justice, thus making it an unconstitutional exercise. The notification of these amended rules cement the chilling effect on the fundamental right to speech and expression, particularly on news publishers, journalists, activists, etc.”

Twitter has long published details of how it handles requests from governments. In the event of a successful legal demand, such as a court order, Twitter follows these rules if it is required to delete individual tweets or an entire account. Typically these rules relate to a single country.

Under Musk’s ownership, these rules look as though they are changing.

Indian investigative journalist Saurav Das wrote recently about discovering that a number of his tweets had been removed and that they were not available worldwide. He told Scroll.In that  tweets relating to Union Home Minister Amit Shah had been removed worldwide, not just in India.

The tweets seem relatively benign, although Das says he cannot remember exactly the context around posting them.

Tweeting on 9 April in response Das said, “Can Twitter allow the Indian government to sit in judgement over content that it may deem fit for blocking in America, or any other country apart from India?”.

He added, “If this global restriction of content on behest of a country’s govt is ignored, this will open a whole new chapter of censorship and prove disastrous for free speech and expression.”

Twitter’s actions seem to fly in the face of its stated policy – pre-Musk ownership – towards India. In 2021, Twitter said that it would only block content and accounts within India and said it would not do so for “news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians”. That scope now appears to have changed.

I asked Twitter’s press team for a statement on the case and received an automated email containing just a poop emoji. This has been a common response from Twitter’s press email since Elon Musk’s takeover, when the press team was significantly reduced.

During Elon Musk’s surprise interview with the BBC this week, Musk was asked about the issue of censorship of social media in India in the wake of the country banning the BBC’s documentary on Narendra Modi. Musk said: “The rules in India for what can appear on social media are quite strict, and we can’t go beyond the laws of a country…if we have a choice of either our people go to prison or we comply with the laws, we’ll comply with the laws.”

“We deserve more on freedom of expression”

Sanaa Seif, the sister of Egyptian writer and activist Alaa abd el-Fattah, speaking at COP27

It shouldn’t surprise anyone reading this that I care passionately about freedom of expression. I have dedicated my life to political engagement and campaigning and have used every right afforded to me under article 10 of the Human Rights Act as I have sought to fix problems in our society.

At Index I spend every day seeking to ensure that those people who are silenced by despotic regimes have a platform for their words and their art. I speak to journalists and stakeholders daily about threats to freedom of speech at home and abroad. After all, Index was founded to protect this most fundamental of human rights everywhere it is threatened.

But there are some weeks when even I am surprised by the scale of news coverage of freedom of speech. Especially in the UK. It increasingly feels like the phrase freedom of speech is dominating political debate as well as the comment pages in our mainstream media. Of course I welcome every mention and the truth, in an age of disinformation, trolling and political populism, is that we need a national conversation about how language, speech and debate need to be protected and cherished as our communication tools evolve and develop.

But in the last week I’m not sure that’s what we’ve seen. I want a debate about freedom of speech and expression. About how to protect and promote media, artistic and academic freedoms. Instead what we have seen is journalists arrested, in the UK, for doing their job and covering the news. We’ve seen an elected politician denounce media outlets for having the audacity to cover protests.

On the international stage we’ve seen a social media platform used by millions of people change dramatically on the whim of a billionaire within a matter of days of his taking ownership. World leaders attending COP27 in Egypt failing in all efforts to intervene in the case of Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a democracy campaigner, imprisoned because he dared to support a political protest. And in the US we’ve once again seen too many politicians undermining the very basis of their democracy as a political tool.

We deserve so much better than this.

We deserve more than political rhetoric about free speech while populists seek to hijack their own definition of free speech for political gain.

We deserve more than token diplomatic gestures when people are rotting in prison for having the audacity to demand their basic human rights.

We deserve more than our police forces arresting journalists and undermining media freedom because they seek to cover the news.

We deserve better. And Index will keep demanding better – at home and abroad.

Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter – good for free speech?

On 25 April, Twitter announced that it has entered into a definitive agreement to be acquired by an entity wholly owned by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk in a transaction valued at approximately US$44 billion. He had previously announced that he had amassed a 9% stake in the social media platform.

Ooh, that’s a lot of money.

Elon Musk is not short of a few dollars. He made $175 million from selling his stake in PayPal when it was sold to eBay. He was an early investor in electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, of which he is now CEO, and he founded rocket company SpaceX. His net worth is estimated at US$264.4 billion, making him the richest person in the world.

Why has he bought Twitter?

Musk is one of Twitter’s biggest users, with 86.2 million followers. He has hinted that he might want to buy it for several years. That said, he has had a love-hate relationship with the platform. In 2018, he suggested on Twitter that he had enough funding to take Tesla private but was subsequently fined $20 million as it had affected the market in Tesla shares, something frowned upon by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Why is everyone talking about free speech?

Elon Musk clearly wants Twitter to reconsider its approach to free speech. In the press release on the acquisition, Musk’s only statement was: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated. I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”

What does Elon Musk think free speech is?

Elon Musk describes himself as a “free speech absolutist”, posting that he would not remove access to Russian news sources through his satellite internet company Starlink “except at gunpoint”.

Clarifying his position on Tuesday evening, Musk tweeted, “By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”

What about the freedom to criticise him and his companies?

He clearly does not want everyone to have free speech, most notably disgruntled Tesla employees and whistleblowers.

Isn’t Twitter quite hot on free expression anyway?

Twitter says in its policy on freedom of expression that “defending and respecting the user’s voice is one of our core values” and that this commitment is based on the the United States Bill of Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as being informed by a number of additional sources including the members of its Trust and Safety Council, relationships with advocates and activists around the globe, and by works such as United Nations Principles on Business and Human Rights.

In its policy on hateful conduct, Twitter says, “Free expression is a human right – we believe that everyone has a voice, and the right to use it. Our role is to serve the public conversation, which requires representation of a diverse range of perspectives.

We recognize that if people experience abuse on Twitter, it can jeopardize their ability to express themselves…  For this reason, we prohibit behavior that targets individuals or groups with abuse based on their perceived membership in a protected category.”

What’s this he’s saying about authenticating humans? Sounds a bit weird.

It seems clear that while Musk is keen to allow “lawful” free speech, he is less keen on the ability for people to remain anonymous on the platform.

In its transparency report, Twitter says that “anonymous and pseudonymous speech is important to Twitter”.

Anonymity is particularly valuable for dissidents and for others who fear attack if they reveal their true identity.

Some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes want social media users to have to identify themselves. That should raise a red flag.

Will Musk’s acquisition see Twitter veer to the right?

Musk has been hard to pin down on his political views, with most seeing him as a social libertarian.

One of the criticisms often aimed at Twitter is that it and its staff are too woke.

However, Twitter’s own research shows that mainstream right-wing parties benefit at least as much, and often substantially more, from algorithmic personalisation as their left-wing counterparts.

It also found that content from US media outlets with a strong right-leaning bias are amplified marginally more than content from left-leaning sources.

The million-dollar question: Will Musk ask Twitter to reinstate Donald Trump’s Twitter account?

On 8 January 2021, Twitter announced that it would permanently ban former President Donald Trump from Twitter “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” following the storming of the US Capitol by his supporters.

Musk might try as part of his commitment to free speech to allow Trump back on but Trump himself says he won’t rejoin even though his own Truth Social platform appears to be struggling to make an impact.

And finally, will Musk’s acquisition give China greater influence over Twitter?

Musk’s fellow rocket-loving gazillionaire Jeff Bezos jumped on Twitter to ask whether Musk’s acquisition of Twitter would give the Chinese government “a bit of leverage over the town square?”.

The Amazon founder asked the question in response to another tweet by New York Times reporter Mike Forysthe that pointed out that China was Tesla’s second biggest market after the USA in 2021 and that Chinese battery makers are major suppliers for Tesla’s electric vehicles.

Bezos answered his own question, saying “probably not” and that a “more likely outcome…is complexity in China for Tesla, rather than censorship at Twitter”.

Thousands of Twitter users helpfully pointed out to Bezos that people could ask the same question of him following his acquisition of the Washington Post in 2013. User Sankrant Sanu wrote: “How much leverage does China have over Washington Post given the percentage of goods sold on Amazon that are dependent on that country for supply?