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Twitter puts free speech and transparency at risk if it fails to publish government takedown requests

Twitter logo on building

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For the past decade, Twitter has published biannual reports detailing takedown requests and legal demands the company received, including from governments around the world, as well as Twitter’s responses to those requests. 

However, according to an update yesterday in Rolling Stone, Twitter failed to publish its most recent transparency report and has yet to respond to media requests about the oversight.

These reports serve as a vital tool for two important reasons. Not only do they tell us which governments are attempting to quash critics’ and dissenters’ speech on social media, they also tell us how a major platform for political speech handles such demands. After all, it’s important for every Twitter user — no matter what country they’re in — to know whether government bodies are filing censorship or information requests regarding users’ speech, and whether the hosting platform is willing to succumb to overbroad legal demands or hand over user data.

If Musk truly seeks transparency for Twitter, he should ensure that the valuable reports documenting global takedown demands are a priority under his leadership.

Former employees told Rolling Stone that the oversight may point to a staffing issue due to firings and employee turnover that have plagued the company in recent months. “I’m not aware of any people left [at Twitter] who could produce these transparency reports,” one ex-staffer said. “It’s really a problem that there’s no transparency data from 2022 anywhere.” 

Whether it’s simply a lack of necessary staffing, or an intentional decision to no longer issue the reports, Twitter should immediately and publicly commit to regularly releasing transparency reports once again. 

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This transparency is especially necessary given Twitter’s recent dealings with the Indian government, and its apparent decision to grant officials’ demands to locally censor tweets about a BBC documentary critical of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in deadly religious riots in 2002. 

The reports would help paint a more accurate picture of the landscape Twitter currently operates in, and whether the company has agreed to illiberal censorship demands from other governments, too. 

Musk has long suggested that by “free speech” he “simply mean[s] that which matches the law” of a given nation. Under this rubric, it’s likely that Twitter would be willing to abide by broad censorship demands from foreign countries, as it did in India. Twitter users who care about censorship and privacy should know if that’s the case, and if there have been changes in how the company handles such requests. 

In releasing the “Twitter Files,” Musk argued that he wanted to lift the lid on the company’s behind-the-scenes content moderation. If Musk truly seeks transparency for Twitter, he should ensure that the valuable reports documenting global takedown demands are a priority under his leadership. Anything less would deny Twitter users vital information about the platform and the governments that may seek to censor them on it. 

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