According to The Washington Post, in the weeks since Elon Musk took to Twitter, it has started an important and controversial public conversation about freedom of expression and its limits.
But the debate about Trump’s account of antisemitic tweets from the musician formerly known as Kanye West, and whether Twitter was excessively censoring Hunter Biden-related tweets, is only a small fragment of free speech. Let me shift the conversation to China and Iran, where the purest form of free speech is happening right under Musk’s nose.
In a rare display for China, people have been protesting online and in the streets in recent weeks over the government’s COVID-19 restrictions, and some of them have called for a widespread loosening of the government’s control over their lives . Iran has been rocked by protests for months following the death of Mahsa Amini, who was detained by Iran’s morality police over an alleged violation of the country’s dress code for women.
Social media, including Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, WeChat and Telegram, have been important tools in helping people in China and Iran organize and share their thoughts with the outside world and each other. Protesters in those countries are defying internet controls by authorities and the laws of their countries, putting their safety at great risk.
The governments of both countries have made small concessions to the demands of the protesters, although it is unclear how much actual change they will allow. Musk and other free speech-loving internet owners should be fighting what is happening in Iran and China. But Musk said almost nothing about what Twitter should do to give people a voice when their own governments don’t want people to have a voice.
In a Twitter Spaces audio chat over the weekend, Elon Musk was asked what Twitter can do to support citizens in countries such as China, Iran and Ukraine, where social media has helped people stand up for themselves. In Ukraine, they are trying to counter the Russian government’s propaganda about the war, which Russia’s leaders consider a war.
Elon Musk reiterated his view that people should be able to speak freely within the limits of the law. The hour-long discussion included fascinating references to dramatic episodes of defiance in Iran and China. This came up in the Twitter Space chat at about 2 hours 25 minutes in.
Here are some follow-up questions for Elon Musk: What if the government’s own laws deprive people of their fundamental rights to freedom of expression? And what happens when government censorship, digital snooping or online propaganda undermine free speech?
These are not theoretical questions. China and Iran have been among the most successful governments in the world at co-opting and censoring the internet both inside and outside their countries’ borders. Twitter, Facebook and other foreign apps are banned in China and Iran, although people find ways around the blockade. Outside China, government-linked groups have repeatedly flooded Twitter and other sites with false information or friends.
Trying to skew the world’s beliefs about everything from COVID-19 to the Winter Olympics. Years before Elon Musk took to Twitter, Saudi Arabia’s government spied on dissidents outside the country who used Twitter to criticize the Saudi leadership, and a US jury indicted a former Twitter employee in its surveillance scheme. Convicted. Convicted. Ready to take bribe from Saudi officials
The laws give authorities the power to order the removal from the Internet of posts that authorities consider to be subversive or a threat. Critics of those laws say they are often intended to silence protests that the authorities don’t like. Under the company’s former management, Twitter took the Indian government to court.
It refused to order the blocking of some accounts of citizens whom Twitter said were expressing their rights under India’s own constitution. What internet companies should do about governments determined to interfere with free speech is an essential question for Musk as the owner of Twitter and a self-proclaimed free speech purist. He has said little about the vexing issue that all American Internet companies must grapple with.