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Elon Musk’s Twitter controversy surrounding government censorship requests explained

The supposed “free speech absolutist” accepted a Turkish government request for censorship during a crucial election, leading to claims of hypocrisy.

The supposed “free speech absolutist” accepted a Turkish government request for censorship during a crucial election, leading to claims of hypocrisy.

Elon Musk has proved by his actions as Twitter boss that he doesn’t really care about free speech if it hurts his bottom line. Twitter has lost two-thirds of its value since the son of emerald mine-owners bought the platform last year and that means giving up any principles he said he holds dear.

The most egregious example came with the recent elections in Turkey. The European nation straddling Asia Minor hosted crucial elections with the first real chance of unseating near-dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a decade and his government requested Twitter censor tweets and accounts that supported his opponent or be banned. Musk backed down, and Erdoğan won the election.

“Is someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like?” Musk had tweeted after he bought the company. “And if that is the case, then we have free speech.” Unless you threaten him a little bit.

Before Musk’s takeover, Twitter had notably taken stands against government requests to censor or restrict content. For example, the company has been known to challenge government orders to remove or block certain tweets or user accounts if they believe such requests infringe upon freedom of speech or violate their policies.

In 2021, the Indian government introduced new laws called the Information Technology, or the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, Rules. These rules mandated that social media platforms, including Twitter, appoint officers to handle user complaints and take down content deemed illegal or harmful by the government. Twitter filed a lawsuit against the Indian government, arguing the law is excessive.

In the last 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.

Now that number is up to 83%.

Does this matter?

It would be fair to argue it is not Twitter’s place to decide what can and can’t be legally published and indeed it isn’t.

However, when the owner of the platform has made such a big deal in the past about how important free speech is to him, it is disappointing that it actually isn’t so crucial if a mild threat is pointed his way.

“By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law,” Musk said in a tweet last year. “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.”

For many people there is no democratic recourse to speak freely and a free speech absolutist has the power to enable that. Or not.