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Trump Isn't the Biggest Issue in Platform Censorship. It's a Global Problem.
The censoring of a Modi documentary shows how platforms aren't ready for free speech outside the U.S.
This past week, Meta announced it was allowing Donald Trump to use his Facebook account again. (He had his Twitter account reinstated in November, but hasn't tweeted.) In the aftermath of the Capitol riots two years ago, this decision might have been seen as momentous in the debate about free speech on platforms, but it was greeted with mostly shrugs. Why? Trump and Facebook, while once -- and still possibly able -- to command our attention, are seen by voters and Meta itself (as evidenced by its 2021 name change) as fading.
However, a new clash is arising, between autocratic governments and platforms over speech. On January 21, Kanchan Gupta, a senior adviser to India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, tweeted that the ministry was invoking its "emergency powers under the IT Rules," introduced in 2021, to initiate takedown requests of links showing the first episode of a BBC documentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's role in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the province of Gujarat. He said the documentary was "hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage." Modi, a Hindu nationalist from the BJP Party, was chief minister of the province at the time, and is accused of, at best, ignoring, and at worst, being directly responsible for, pogroms that killed over 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. Due to the riots, Modi could not get a visa to travel to the United States under a religious freedom law until 2014, when President Barack Obama lifted the ban after he was elected prime minister. Offline, the government has tried to suppress the showing of the BBC documentary, "India: The Modi Question," by cutting electricity before a January 24 screening at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi; students watched on laptops and cellphones, according to the New York Times.
Online, some of the takedown requests appear to have been granted. According to The Intercept, Twitter users claimed that their videos were replaced with legal notices. (YouTube, owned by Alphabet, said it had taken down the videos because of a copyright claim from the BBC.)
India's government is using takedown requests that democratic governments like Japan use to block illicit content to block a documentary that touches on the sensitive political issue of Modi's role in the pogroms. It is a far more egregious and consequential instance of platform censorship than the Trump bans of 2021. The Trump bans were defensible because of his praising of violence on the platform and were reversed; the BBC documentary is objective journalism being blocked for political reasons.
Twitter was one of the platforms to take down content in India. Its head, Elon Musk, has two contradictory ideas about free speech. One is that it should be "absolute" and a "bedrock of a functioning democracy." The second is that platforms should comply with local laws. "My preference is to hew close to the laws of countries in which Twitter operates,” he tweeted last year. “If the citizens want something banned, then pass a law to do so, otherwise it should be allowed.”
While many Americans might not see the contradiction between these two principles, as the First Amendment prohibits laws abridging speech, other countries don't have a First Amendment. And in India, these two principles came into direct conflict.
Musk responded to the takedowns on Twitter, saying it was the "first time" he had heard about it. "It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things,” he said. It is entirely possible that the news did not make its way up the chain, as Musk's Twitter laid off 90 percent of its 200 employees in India. But it is also possible that Musk hasn't figured out how to reconcile his competing ideas of free speech.
He should have seen this debate coming. In January 2021, Russian political prisoner Alexei Navalny, then free and recovering in Germany, was one of the few voices to criticize the Trump ban on speech grounds. "Of course, Twitter is a private company, but we have seen many examples in Russia and China of such private companies becoming the state's best friends and the enablers when it comes to censorship," he tweeted. "This precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world. In Russia as well. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: 'this is just common practice, even Trump got blocked on Twitter'."
Platforms haven't used the Trump bans to justify censorship. But Navalny was correct that authoritarian governments would continue to use platforms to censor information they don't want disseminated. China -- and Russia since Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022 -- have simply banned Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. China blocked Facebook in 2009 after it refused to give over user data about Uighur protests and Google in 2010 after it was subject to a massive state-sponsored hack and stopped blocking searches. However, in India, Modi hasn't gone that far, as he is an authoritarian-minded figure in the confines of a democracy, along the lines of Viktor Orban of Hungary and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Outside the United States with its First Amendment, it's likely that other aspiring autocrats will seek to use platforms to do their dirty work of censoring. And platforms seem to be ready to comply for profit.
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