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Censorship in India exposes the gap between ‘free speech’ and the law

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi

Saikat Paul /

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi addresses supporters during an election rally in 2019. Modi's government has suppressed the release of a BBC documentary chronicling his role in the country's 2002 religious riots that resulted in over a thousand deaths.

Since his takeover of Twitter, Elon Musk has maintained that by “free speech” he “simply mean[s] that which matches the law” of a given nation. In effect, this means that tweets allowed in the United States would generally reflect what’s protected under the First Amendment, but accounts in censorship-heavy countries like Turkey should expect their content to get the boot without a fight if it violates one of the country’s many laws restricting speech.

“If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect,” he wrote. “Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”

But laws often don’t match the will of the people they govern. Instead, speech-restrictive laws might very well exist because of the will of authoritarians who seek to suppress critics, protesters, and challengers. Under such laws, people may not even be permitted to advocate for more free speech-friendly governance.

Events currently taking place in India offer a timely explanation of why following “the law” can harm free speech, both locally and globally. 

It should also be clear why Musk’s theory doesn’t make sense for a global social media platform. In the United States, of course, legal protections for expression are expansive and, while frequently challenged, generally safeguard free expression. But in much of the world, the law not only does not reflect “free speech,” but also directly suppresses it. It’s one thing to argue that Twitter should simply abide by the laws of the countries the company operates in. It’s another to suggest that by following local laws, including repressive ones, a company is respecting free expression.

Events currently taking place in India offer a timely explanation of why following “the law” can harm free speech, both locally and globally. 

The release of a BBC documentary chronicling Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in religious riots in 2002 that resulted in over a thousand deaths quickly provoked a new wave of suppression in a country whose leaders have grown increasingly comfortable flexing their censorship powers. 

Indian universities are warning students against screening the documentary: At one campus, a dozen students were detained ahead of a screening, and at another, officials cut the power so students were unable to show it. Government officials are ordering websites and social media platforms to take action against the “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage” by taking down links and material about the documentary. 

And the platforms are complying. 

A YouTube spokesperson told The Intercept the company took down copies of the film because of BBC copyright claims, but “declined to comment on takedown demands from the Indian government.” Even the Internet Archive, an online archive meant to preserve access to digital and written content, took down the documentary, but it has not made clear if copyright claims or government censorship demands inspired the removal. And Twitter confirmed that the company took down at least 50 tweets from view within India in response to requests made by Indian officials. 

Twitter, of course, has a checkered history regarding its dealings with government officials around the world.

Musk’s only comment thus far about the censorship controversy is to say that he wasn’t aware of the removals, which strains credulity given Musk’s heavy involvement in the platform, and that “it is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight.”

Free speech, clearly, does not match the law here, and by removing this material Twitter is impairing the global conversation about the leader of the world’s second most populous country. It’s a serious loss for the people within India who are unable to speak freely, but also for the rest of the world, who are now unable to benefit from local perspectives on important matters. As COVID-19 taught us, censorship in one country can have serious downstream effects, and its consequences are rarely confined by national borders. 

Twitter, of course, has a checkered history regarding its dealings with government officials around the world, but in previous years it didn’t always acquiesce to demands from Indian officials. In fact, the platform often held its ground. 

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Before Musk’s takeover, Twitter only honored about 20% of takedown requests from the Indian government. And during the 2021 farmers’ protest, though Twitter initially complied with government demands that it block protesters’ accounts, it then reversed course, unblocking the accounts and citing free speech. During that time, police threatened Twitter staff with charges and arrest. Later that year, after the platform labeled a ruling party official’s tweet “manipulated media,” police even raided the company’s Delhi and Gurgaon offices. 

This summer, Twitter more aggressively combated the country’s censorship efforts, filing suit against the Indian government and, in doing so, challenging its increasing efforts to control what can be said both about the country’s leaders and on the internet in general.

Twitter’s relationship with free speech has long been messy, complex, and worthy of criticism before Musk’s takeover. But if Musk means to make the platform a haven for expression, he should start by clarifying whether he intends to follow local law, or fight for free speech. In much of the world, they are not the same, and it only provides cover to authoritarians when we conflate the two.

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