Elon Musk faces accusations of being complicit in state censorship after Twitter appeared to side with India’s government in a turbulent fight for free expression over a documentary criticizing the country’s prime minister.
The fight revolves around a new BBC documentary that focuses on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and delves into allegations that the politician enabled religiously motivated violence against Muslims. India is majority Hindu with a Muslim minority.
Modi’s government said it has ordered social media platforms, including Twitter, to censor posts about the documentary. what calls “hostile propaganda and anti-Indian trash,” and Twitter appears to have complied by blocking certain tweets from being viewed inside India, according to screenshots of notices posted this week by Twitter users.
“This Tweet from @derekobrienmp has been withheld in India in response to a legal claim,” read a notice Posted by Derek O’Brien, Member of the Indian Parliament. The notice appeared instead of a tweet about the documentary, according to O’Brien’s screenshot.
Musk, the tech billionaire who bought Twitter last year and a self-described free-speech absolutist, acknowledged the issue in a tweet on Wednesday without promising what he will do.
“First thing I hear”, Musk wrote in response to a question by Canadian lawyer David Freiheit.
“It’s not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter around the world overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things,” he added, referring to the multiple companies where he is CEO.
Musk’s brief response stood in stark contrast to the sometimes detailed, personalized responses he has given to other people who complain about Twitter. “Online Complaint Hotline Operator! Mention your complaints below,” he said. tweeted in November.
Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment, but backlash is building against the San Francisco company’s apparent decision to comply with India’s lawsuit.
“Self-proclaimed free speech absolutists like Elon Musk need to lead by example. By retaining Twitter posts on [the] In the BBC documentary, Musk has made it clear that to him, profits are more important than human rights,” Rasheed Ahmed, chief executive of the Indian American Muslim Council, an advocacy organization, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Modi’s opponents have accused him of years of inaction in the face of violent Hindu nationalism, including the 2002 massacre of more than 1,000 Muslims when he was head of the Indian state of Gujarat. Modi called the allegations defamation.
Actor John Cusack was one of those who criticized Musk, vocation him a “royal profile in cowardice”. Cusack, a board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, in 2016 co-wrote a book on government surveillance with Indian novelist Arundhati Roy.
Matthew Yglesias, a journalist whose daily bulletin is popular within the Biden administration, said he feared what Musk might do for other hard-liners like Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
“If you are willing to do this for the Indian prime minister, consider Xi’s influence,” he said. wrote. (China is central to Tesla’s car business.)
Indian authorities continued their crackdown on the BBC documentary on Wednesday as Delhi police detained students as they gathered to watch the film, called “India: The Modi Question,” Reuters reported.
It is not uncommon for technology companies to block content locally in response to an order from a court or other authority. In a transparency report since before Musk bought Twitter, the company said it received 47,572 local lawsuits to remove content during the second half of 2021; 97% of them were from five countries, the company said: Japan, Russia, South Korea, Turkey and India. In India, Twitter said so compliment 5.6% of the time.
Lumen, a Harvard University-based database that collects government blackout requests issued to technology platforms, said in a blog post Monday that it had received a copy of the order from India on Twitter.
India’s order also applied to YouTube, with YouTube removing some copies of the documentary from its website and app. But YouTube said it acted in response to a copyright-related lawsuit, and on Wednesday the BBC said it had also requested the removal of clips from websites and platforms it believed infringed the BBC’s copyright.
The Internet Archive also removed copies of the documentary, displaying instead a notice that items “may be removed for various reasons.” The file did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But the BBC said it made no similar request to Twitter.
“The BBC has not asked Twitter to remove any content related to the documentary,” the British broadcaster said in a statement.
The BBC has broadcast the documentary only in the UK and has so far not licensed it to any third-party streaming service.
Raman Chima, a former Google employee who is now a lawyer for Access Now, a human rights organization, said the Indian government’s actions show that human rights are under threat in India.
“IT Rules are being exploited, giving authorities license to pressure platforms to censor content in cases of ’emergency,’” he said in a statement. a twitter thread.
“These takedowns underscore the rapid expansion of state censorship in India,” Chima added.