Elon Musk’s Twitter faces censorship allegations in India free speech battle

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Elon Musk is facing allegations of being complicit with state censorship after Twitter appeared to take sides with India’s government in a turbulent free speech fight over a documentary critical of the country’s prime minister. 

The fight revolves around a new documentary from the BBC that focuses on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, delving into accusations that the politician allowed religious-based violence against Muslims. India is majority Hindu with a Muslim minority. 

Modi’s government said it has ordered social media platforms including Twitter to censor posts about the documentary, which it calls “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage,” and Twitter appears to have complied by blocking certain tweets from being seen within India, according to screenshots of notices posted this week by Twitter users. 

“This Tweet from @derekobrienmp has been withheld in India in response to a legal demand,” read one notice posted by Derek O’Brien, a member of the Indian parliament. The notice appeared in place of a tweet about the documentary, according to O’Brien’s screenshot. 

Musk, the tech billionaire who bought Twitter last year and has called himself a free speech absolutist, acknowledged the subject in a tweet Wednesday while making no promises about what he’ll do. 

“First I’ve heard,” Musk wrote in response to a question from Canadian lawyer David Freiheit. 

“It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things,” he added, referring to the multiple companies where he is CEO. 

Musk’s brief answer was in contrast to the sometimes-detailed, personalized responses he has given to other people who complain to him about Twitter. “Complaint hotline operator online! Please mention your complaints below,” he tweeted in November. 

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment, but a backlash is building against the San Francisco company’s apparent decision to comply with India’s demand. 

“Self-proclaimed free-speech absolutists like Elon Musk must walk the talk. By withholding Twitter posts on [the] BBC documentary, Musk has made clear that for him, profits matter more than human rights,” Rasheed Ahmed, executive director of the Indian American Muslim Council, an advocacy organization, said in a statement Wednesday. 

Opponents of Modi have for years accused him of inaction in the face of violent Hindu nationalism, including the massacre of more than 1,000 Muslims in 2002, when he was head of the Indian state of Gujarat. Modi has called the accusations a smear

Actor John Cusack was among those criticizing Musk, calling him a “real profile in cowardice.” Cusack, a board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, in 2016 co-wrote a book on government surveillance with Indian novelist Arundhati Roy. 

Matthew Yglesias, a journalist whose daily newsletter is popular inside the Biden administration, said he feared what Musk might do for other hard-line figures such as Chinese leader Xi Jinping. 

“If he’s willing to do this for the Indian prime minister consider Xi’s influence,” he wrote. (China is critical to Tesla’s car business.) 

Indian authorities continued a crackdown on the BBC documentary Wednesday, as police in Delhi detained students as they gathered to watch the motion picture, called “India: The Modi Question,” Reuters reported. 

It is not unheard of for tech companies to block content locally in response to an order from a court or other authority. In a transparency report from before Musk bought Twitter, the company said it received 47,572 local demands to remove content during the second half of 2021; 97% of them were from five countries, the company said: Japan, Russia, South Korea, Turkey and India. Within India, Twitter said it complied 5.6% of the time. 

Lumen, a Harvard University-based database that collects government censorship requests issued to tech platforms, said Monday in a blog post that it had received a copy of India’s order to Twitter. 

India’s order also applied to YouTube, and YouTube removed some copies of the documentary from its website and app. But YouTube said it acted in response to a copyright-related demand, and on Wednesday the BBC said it also had requested the removal of clips from websites and platforms it believed infringed on BBC’s copyright. 

The Internet Archive also removed copies of the documentary, showing instead a notice that items “may be taken down for various reasons.” The archive did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

But the BBC said it did not make any similar request to Twitter. 

“The BBC has not asked Twitter to remove any content relating to the documentary,” the British broadcaster said in a statement. 

The BBC has broadcast the documentary only in the United Kingdom and has not licensed it to any third-party streaming services so far. 

Raman Chima, a former Google employee who’s now a lawyer for Access Now, a human rights organization, said the Indian government’s actions show human rights are under threat in India. 

“The IT Rules are being exploited, handing authorities license to pressure platforms to censor content in ’emergency’ cases,” he said in a Twitter thread

“These takedowns underscore the rapid expansion of state censorship in India,” Chima added.

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