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Twitter’s Free Speech Mirage

Countries, not companies, are increasingly the ones setting the rules for online speech.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Elon Musk
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Elon Musk
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Elon Musk during a meeting in Ankara on Nov. 8, 2017. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at the sale of Twitter and the global rise of social media regulation, U.S. progress on its Ukraine Lend-Lease program, and more news worth following from around the world.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Why Twitter Won’t Be Restoring ‘Free Speech’

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at the sale of Twitter and the global rise of social media regulation, U.S. progress on its Ukraine Lend-Lease program, and more news worth following from around the world.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Why Twitter Won’t Be Restoring ‘Free Speech’

Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, bought Twitter on Monday for $44 billion, with the stated aim of restoring “free speech” on the influential social media platform.

It’s likely that Musk means this in an American context, where the battle for “free speech” has become a rallying cry for those on the U.S. political right who accuse Twitter (and other major tech firms) of silencing conservative voices by enforcing what they deem arbitrary content moderation policies—a simplistic approach that, as Anand Giridharadas argued in the New York Times, could stand to learn something from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the concepts of negative and positive liberty.

The list of grievances is long, but near the top of it is the ongoing ban of former U.S. President Donald Trump, a notoriously avid Twitter user.

So when it comes to Twitter’s future in the United States, loosened content moderation and Trump’s return may be enough for the company’s American detractors to claim victory.

The rest of the world is a different story. That’s because for years now, states, not social media companies, have been taking the lead on deciding who gets to speak online. This approach makes social platforms not so much a public square as a school playground, where the government can act as supervisor, disciplinarian, and chief bully all at the same time.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t a closed authoritarian country that topped the list of governments requesting that content be removed from the platform. Japan led the world in legal demands regarding Twitter content in the first half of 2021, the most recent period for which the company has published data. According to Twitter’s transparency report, the Japanese requests—43 percent of the global total—stemmed from concerns over “laws regarding narcotics and drug control, obscenity, or financial-related crimes.”

More typical culprits appear when moving down the list. Russia, Turkey, and India, along with South Korea, round out the top five and contributed 95 percent of all legal demands in the reporting period.

While China sidesteps the issue entirely by blocking major social media channels (a policy that doesn’t stop its Twitter-happy diplomats), Turkey and India have taken a more hands-on approach.

Since 2020, Turkey has ordered social media companies with more than 1 million daily users to appoint a local representative and form a local entity that can be issued fines for noncompliance with government orders. That desire for control goes hand in hand with a wider media crackdown, which has seen Turkey become one of the biggest jailers of journalists in the world.

India has also followed a similar route, recently instituting rules requiring major social media companies to open local offices and appoint local representatives to oversee compliance with its new regulations—and be held criminally liable for any breaches. Twitter has also faced pressure from the Indian government to remove accounts supporting farmer protests last year, and it was one of several companies asked to remove accounts criticizing the national response to the country’s COVID-19 epidemic.

Turkey and India are not outliers in their attempts to govern social media content. In 2021, at least 24 countries put new laws or rules in place to control how companies operate in that space, according to data from the latest Freedom on the Net report from Freedom House.

It’s not just countries with shaky democratic ideals that are keen to police online speech, either. European Union regulators, long a thorn in the side of Silicon Valley, unveiled new plans over the weekend that would limit how users are targeted with ads, as well as force tech firms to clamp down on illegal content or potentially face billions of dollars in fines.

The new rules would also include a “crisis mechanism” that would allow the bloc to tightly control how social media companies operate during a health or security emergency.

The wide reach of the EU regulations, known as the Digital Services Act, was criticized by Jacob Mchangama in a recent Foreign Policy piece, in which he warned that the new rules could cause “serious collateral damage to online free speech in Europe.”

“It will most likely result in a shrinking space for online expression, as social media companies are incentivized to delete massive amounts of perfectly legal content,” Mchangama writes.

If Musk is in fact set on improving free speech on his new website, the tide of global regulation is against him. Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, told the Financial Times that Musk will be subject to the same terms as any other company: “Elon, there are rules. You are welcome but these are our rules. It’s not your rules which will apply here,” he said.

Further reading:

•Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report, which covers the global drive to regulate Big Tech.

Isaac Chotiner’s interview with Bloomberg’s Matt Levine in the New Yorker on what might be behind Musk’s Twitter play.

• FP editor in chief Ravi Agrawal’s Q&A with Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s competition commissioner, on her views on Big Tech and the role she wants to play in regulating it.


What We’re Following Today

Lend-Lease progress. The House Rules Committee considers a bill to reestablish the World War II-era Lend-Lease Act to better speed the transfer of weaponry to the Ukrainian military. The bill has already been approved by the U.S. Senate, and it will be put to a wider vote in the House of Representatives if it gets released by the House committee. The bill’s provisions don’t just include Ukraine but other “governments of Eastern European countries impacted by the Russian Federation’s invasion.”

Russia’s African ties. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with his Eritrean counterpart Osman Saleh Mohammed in Moscow today, amid speculation that Eritrea could send conscripts to aid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia has denied recruiting soldiers from neighboring Ethiopia after hundreds of men appeared to register for military service outside the Russian Embassy in Addis Ababa last week.

In West Africa, France has accused Russian mercenaries of attempting to stage a false flag operation in Mali by fabricating a mass grave near a former French military base, as my FP colleagues Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer report. And in this week’s Africa Brief, FP’s Nosmot Gbadamosi analyzes Cameroon’s military deal with the Kremlin as President Paul Biya seeks to diversify his security relationships—turning to partners who won’t criticize his government’s human rights record.


Odds and Ends

A school in Japan’s Kanagawa prefecture has racked up a $27,000 water bill after a teacher left a faucet running in the school’s swimming pool, believing the flow of fresh water would help protect swimmers from coronavirus infections.

The water ran freely from late June to early September last year, unleashing over 1 million gallons in total. Local authorities have asked the teacher responsible, as well as two other staff members, to pay half of the exorbitant water bill.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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