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A few questions for Twitter’s new owner from India

“Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” — Elon Musk, days before he announced that he would attempt to buy Twitter.

A simple question that might have far-reaching implications. What started on Twitter’s own platform has ended with the platform’s sale. With Elon Musk pulling off yet another expensive gamble that is being hailed as potentially transformative, it’s only natural to question whether the purchase of the “most influential social media platform on the planet” is going to change the landscape for free speech on the Internet. In India, though, Musk’s purchase raises a few more questions than he has so far asked of the platform that he will soon own.

The Twitter of the past: While Twitter’s actions have been rigorously questioned in the past, from banning prominent individuals (most notably former US President Donald Trump) to blocking handles posting “objectionable” tweets, its moderation policy has come under intense scrutiny, including from the US Congress. Will the purchase of the platform by a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” bring large-scale changes to how the platform regulates its users (or doesn’t )? Musk’s intent from his recent Tweets has clearly reflected his agenda to perhaps build an ecosystem that is conducive to individuals expressing their opinions freely and fearlessly through tweets. Another important debate could be around whether reinstating or unbanning these individuals or handles would in turn mean that the platform is disregarding the concern it had with their prior moderation. 

Will Twitter make money in India? Twitter’s main way of making money has historically been advertising, but recently it has launched Twitter Blue in select markets, collecting somewhere in the neighbourhood of $3 a month from users who decide to pay. Now that the company has gone private, how will this strategy evolve in markets like India, where subscriptions are typically offered at a much lower price than in international markets, especially when the price in the US and Australia is low to begin with? More than that, though, with sharper and more focused incentives around earning money, will the importance of India, and in consequence, its commitment to Indian users and its appetite to comply with legal demands from the Indian government?

What the law requires from intermediaries: Beyond the legal issues around the purchase itself, even intermediaries — who have traditionally disclaimed responsibility for users’ actions — increasingly have certain obligations and responsibilities in jurisdictions around the world. In the case of a content-based platform, aggregators are expected to keep a check on the content being shared or posted on the platform. Musk’s oversimplified intentions to create a platform that has no boundaries, guidelines, or restrictions, might not be able to see the light of the day in the face of existing legislations in countries like India.

As they say, with great power, comes great responsibility. Musk’s power to make changes to the way the world’s largest crowd-contributed microblogging and social networking service functions, will be accompanied by the mammoth responsibility to either take personal accountability about what is being posted on the platform or to build a space that is unmoderated, compelling yet witnesses an unprecedented outpouring of hate speech.

The rise of moderation as a norm: Elon’s Twitter promises to try and regulate the content on the platform as per each country’s individual laws. If his stated philosophy on law-based freedom of expression means respect for legislation that doesn’t protect speech as much as the United States does, then he might just end up pleasing nobody. While Twitter started as a “free speech wing of the free-speech party”, this hands-off approach goes against the grain of proactive content moderation that most leading social media platforms have undertaken, in order to remain on the right side of the law.

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A proposed Digital Services Act in the European Union introduces the imposition of billions of dollars in fines on Internet platforms that cannot curb disinformation or fail to remove flagged hate speech or terrorist propaganda. Keeping in mind Twitter’s new plans, such laws may be introduced in other jurisdictions as well, making it difficult for Twitter to absolve itself of scrutiny. The EU has even warned Musk that the changes he brings after his new purchase will have to be compliant with these terms.

What does freedom of speech actually mean online? Free speech has been a controversial right for years on end. Even before the use of the internet and these platforms, unregulated free speech has led to the spread of hate speech and misinformation. Anyone with an internet connection can tweet, blog or comment, with little vetting or accountability, owing to the lack of authentication required by any of these platforms (Musk plans to “authenticate all humans,” something that Indian law suggests social media platforms do as well).

Freedom of speech is the right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint or legal penalty. But the simple question remains, what must be the extent of responsibility laid upon the speech-giver in such instances? While curbing free speech and overblown fears of censorship silences minorities and normalises hate speech, giving uninhibited power to faceless, nameless handles can create havoc in the internet world, opening up a plethora of litigation. Critics also argue that lax moderation (which Elon’s brand of free speech implies) may actually lead to people behaving less freely on platforms like Twitter or be counter-productive in promoting free speech and expression.

Freedom of speech, as many might not understand, is not simply the freedom to be able to speak or express whatever one chooses to, but also the freedom from the consequences of that expression. Will Twitter shield an individual who is expressing themselves “freely,” perhaps by restricting other users from ‘doxxing’ or posting their private information? Will Twitter curb the public wrath that might originate from the expression of a controversial opinion?

What ‘verifying humans’ looks like in India: It is interesting to note that authenticating individuals, as Musk desires, can only be done in India through Aadhaar verification, since there are few other centralised modes to reliably do so. Would Indian authorities be comfortable with the idea of their citizens being mandatorily made to share their verification details with a foreign company?

Is it in Elon Musk’s interests to protect free speech in India? What remains to be questioned is how. Musk would deal with the existing curbs and regulations on “free speech” in India. Would Twitter’s relaxed moderation of content also lead to a faster spread of fake news, a plague that had clearly impacted India, evermore during the pandemic? With recent changes in laws around sedition, defamation, and actions being taken by the Indian government and administration for any stray comment or content on the Internet, will the absolutist attitude toward free speech be upheld in the Indian scenario?

Furthermore, will Twitter fight to keep people like advocate Sanjay Hegde, whose conduct they claim violates Twitter’s terms of service (but not necessarily free speech laws), banned from the platform?

With all forces in India making efforts to regulate what is said on the Internet about the state of current affairs, political actions, and decisions, it would be quite interesting to see how Elon Musk’s efforts at transforming Twitter will align with his clear intention of focussing on India as Tesla’s next, biggest market.

Is Elon Musk going to transform Twitter into a “free-speech safe-haven” or will it simply end up being another big announcement before he moves on to the next thing?

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