Criticized for giving into governments’ censorship demands, Elon Musk on Sunday claimed that Twitter has “no actual choice” about complying those requests.
The comment comes after Musk has previously called himself a “free speech absolutist” and said he wanted to buy Twitter to bolster users’ ability to speak freely on the platform. Shortly after agreeing to acquire Twitter, Musk explained his approach to free speech by saying: “Is someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like? And if that is the case, then we have free speech.”
He added at the time that Twitter would “be very reluctant to delete things” and “be very cautious with permanent bans,” and that the platform would aim to allow all legal speech.
But Musk has faced blowback in recent weeks for appearing to cave to government censorship demands, including by removing some accounts and tweets at the behest of the government of Turkey ahead of the country’s elections (which the company later said it would attempt to fight in court). And in an interview with the BBC last month, Musk was asked about whether Twitter had removed a documentary about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the request of the Indian government, and said he didn’t know “what exactly happened.”
Bloomberg columnist Matthew Yglesias on Sunday tweeted an article suggesting that Twitter has complied with a majority of government takedown requests since Musk took over as the platform’s owner. Musk replied: “Please point out where we had an actual choice and we will reverse it.”
Musk has previously said the company would comply with laws governing social media companies around the world, although such laws in some cases appear to conflict with his free speech vision. Twitter did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
In last month’s interview with the BBC, 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 will comply with the laws.” At another point in the interview, Musk said: “If people of a given country are against a certain type of speech, they should talk to their elected representatives and pass a law to prevent it.”
“By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law,” Musk said in a tweet last year about his vision for Twitter. “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.”
In some countries, Twitter could risk substantial fines and other penalties — including, potentially, bans of the platform — for not complying with local laws.
However, prior to Musk’s takeover, Twitter frequently fought government takedown requests in court, including from India and Turkey, in addition to publicly releasing detailed information about such requests and how it handled them. In many cases, Twitter led the charge among social media companies in protecting its users’ rights around the world.
In last recent removal request report before Musk’s takeover, Twitter said it received more than 47,000 removal requests between July and December 2021, and complied with 51% of them. In many cases, when it did comply with a removal request because of a certain country’s laws, it removed the violating content only in that country, rather than globally.
Musk was also criticized for backing down on his “free speech” vision when Twitter temporarily banned the accounts of several high-profile journalists in December, claiming that they had violated a new “doxxing” policy on the site. None of the banned journalists appeared to have shared Musk’s precise real-time location — the restrictions came after they reported on Twitter’s removal of an account that posts the updated location of Musk’s private jet.