Tech companies — including Twitter — are following the Indian government’s demands to suppress a BBC documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As reported by The Intercept and TechCrunch, Twitter and YouTube both locally blocked The Modi Question, which investigates claims of Modi’s involvement in India’s deadly 2002 Gujarat riots. It’s one of Twitter’s first tangles with India under the ownership of billionaire Elon Musk, but contrary to some writing, the documentary’s ban isn’t an example of Musk violating a vocal “free speech absolutist” ethos. It’s a reminder that Musk has always been fine with government censorship.
Over the weekend, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting senior advisor Kanchan Gupta tweeted that both Twitter and YouTube had complied with orders passed down by the government, which has labeled the BBC documentary “hateful propaganda.” The documentary has also been apparently removed by the Internet Archive, although it’s not clear whether this was following a demand from the government or a copyright complaint from the original owner, and the Internet Archive didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.
Twitter at least partially complied with India’s unusually harsh limits on social media well before Musk’s acquisition but only reluctantly after a raid on its offices and with legal attempts to resist them. Musk, by contrast, claims to have not even known about the decision to censor Twitter links. “First I’ve heard,” Musk tweeted today in response to a request for comment from lawyer David Freiheit. “It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things.”
It’s true Musk has a lot on his plate, including an active securities fraud trial and persistent complaints from Tesla shareholders. And Twitter, like other major tech companies, was obeying speech laws worldwide before the acquisition, albeit with more resistance than Musk seems to be putting up. But it’s fairly revealing to say you didn’t notice the world’s largest democracy issuing a public statement — on your own platform! — that you’d censored a journalistic investigation. The indifference is striking when Musk has spent the past couple of months castigating Twitter’s former leadership for allegedly colluding with various groups, including the US government, to suppress political speech.
It’s also, however, not surprising. Musk purchased Twitter with the professed goal of making it a haven for free expression, but he has repeatedly said Twitter’s policies should “match the laws of the country,” and many countries’ laws (including those of several US states) are increasingly hostile to unfettered speech. Twitter still seems likely to run afoul of government censorship laws, but out of cost-cutting or negligence rather than choice — the company was just sued in Germany for not removing antisemitic hate speech, including Holocaust denial, which is illegal in the country.
If you take Musk in good faith, he’s said he believes that government censorship reflects the will of the people, who can vote on speech controls in a way they can’t for corporations. If you don’t, you might note that Musk’s businesses Tesla and SpaceX are heavily dependent on government goodwill, and he probably won’t waste that goodwill defending a service that’s hemorrhaging funds and buried in debt. A third option is that he simply doesn’t care that much. While Musk is interested in being seen as anti-censorship, even his own moderation rhetoric around Twitter seems inconsistent, driven by convenience and highly specific personal convictions. That’s an unfortunate fate for a service that once seriously weighed the costs and benefits of content moderation around the world — and fought pitched battles to defend the speech of its users from government censorship. But at this point, none of that is Twitter’s biggest problem.