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A remarkable face-off is unfolding between an American internet company and the world’s largest democracy over the appropriate bounds of free speech.
The backdrop is ongoing protests of farmers in India opposing new agriculture laws. The Indian government, citing its laws against subversion or threats to public order, demanded that Twitter delete or hide more than 1,100 accounts that it says have encouraged violence or spread misinformation.
Twitter has complied with some of India’s orders. But Twitter has refused to remove accounts of journalists, activists and others that the company says are appropriately exercising their right to criticize the government.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is saying Twitter is breaking the law. Twitter is saying that India is breaking its own laws. And democracy activists say that tech companies like Twitter shouldn’t play along when governments pass laws that effectively shut down free speech.
There are regularly disputes between internet companies and governments — both democratic and not — over whether posts break a country’s laws. What’s unusual here is how public and high profile the disagreement is, and that India has threatened to imprison Twitter employees.
I spoke with David Kaye, a law professor, former U.N. special rapporteur on free expression and author of “Speech Police,” about Twitter’s decisions in India, how they may reverberate and the consequences of a few tech companies setting the rules of global discourse.
Shira: Do you think Twitter is making the right call?
Kaye: Yes. Twitter is essentially saying that it won’t comply with orders it considers inconsistent with Indian law and that violate people’s human right to free expression.
Under the Modi government, India hasn’t acted democratically on the rights of people to speak out against their government. I’m not sure why Twitter chose this moment to take a stand and not two or three years ago, when the company took action against people posting about Kashmir after pressure from the government.
In my role at the United Nations back then, I asked Twitter to explain what happened. The company didn’t answer. In a way, this week was Twitter’s response.
But Twitter is defying a democratically elected government.
People shouldn’t be under the impression that these companies see themselves as above the law. An important distinction in India is that the order came from a government ministry — not a court. Twitter is saying that India’s demands to block accounts or remove posts didn’t come through the regular rule of law.
What other questions does the standoff raise for you?
I have the same question that people asked after Trump was barred from Facebook and Twitter: What about all the other countries? Will Twitter also be more forceful in standing up to governments in Turkey, Egypt or Saudi Arabia? And how far is Twitter willing to go? Would it risk being blocked in India?
(Twitter does not automatically comply when a government — including the United States — requests that the company pull down content or hand over users’ data. Here are Twitter’s disclosures on how often it responds to such requests by the authorities in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, India and the United States.)
How should we feel that a few internet companies have the power to shape citizens’ engagement with their governments and set the bounds of appropriate expression?
It’s a problem. These companies have massive and largely unaccountable power. The fundamental question is: Who decides what is legitimate speech on these platforms?
Both the internet companies and governments deserve blame. The companies haven’t provided transparency into their operations, their rules and their enforcement. Instead we have perpetual cycles of what look like seat-of-the-pants decisions in response to public pressure. And governments have largely not done the hard work to create smart regulation.
What does smart regulation look like?
The challenge for democratic governments is to enhance the transparency of social media and put it under a regulatory framework — but not impose content rules that are abused and interfere with the free speech rights of users or the rights of companies to create an environment that they want for users. That’s the persistent tension.
The European Union’s proposed Digital Services Act is quite sophisticated legislation on this. The U.S. is still screwing this up.
(Also read Tom Friedman, the New York Times Opinion columnist, who writes that he’s rooting for Europe’s strategy for regulating the internet.)
Facebook is starting to experiment with reducing the amount of political posts and material in its news feed.
The reason, Mark Zuckerberg explained recently, is that people told Facebook that they “don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience.” But, uhhh, have they seen Facebook?
As my colleague Kevin Roose has reported relentlessly — and as an account he created tweets daily — the Facebook posts with links that tend to get the most reactions, shares and comments are overtly political fests of rage. So what is Facebook doing? Kevin and I chatted about this:
Shira: Haven’t your analyses shown that people do want politics and fury in their news feeds?
Kevin: People contain multitudes, and their stated preferences often don’t match their revealed preferences. If a nutritionist surveyed me about my ideal diet, I’d list healthy foods. But if you put a Big Mac in front of me, I’m going to eat it. I find it believable that Facebook users say they don’t want politics and fury, but when their friend posts a great Bernie Sanders meme …
I also suspect that a relatively small number of people are responsible for a huge amount of interactions on Facebook — and that those super sharers are really into politics. Facebook says that only 6 percent of what users in the United States see is political content, so most of Facebook really might be Instant Pot recipes and baby photos.
Is Facebook’s silent majority the people who don’t want all the politics?
Possibly! Or people just aren’t honest about (or don’t know) what they really want. I guess we’ll find out from this Facebook test.
Should Facebook give us more of what we actually click on, or what we say we want to click on?
Facebook, like basically all social media apps, is designed to give us more of what we like. It’s very lucrative, but this hasn’t gone so well for democracy.
So what if a social network were designed to feed our aspirational selves, rather than our lizard-brain impulses? Would we like it more? Or would we miss the drama and the fighting?
America’s unofficial unemployment hotline: During the pandemic, more Americans have turned to a Reddit message board for advice on navigating the confusing unemployment insurance systems, my colleague Ella Koeze writes. It’s also a place to commiserate with others going through the same difficult circumstances.
Falling into the algorithm void: Companies that make specialized clothing for people with disabilities say that Facebook’s automated systems routinely reject advertisements and listings for their products. The problem, my colleague Vanessa Friedman writes, is that computers are bad at nuance and Facebook’s systems often flag adaptive clothing as medical equipment promotions or “adult content,” which is against the company’s rules.
The digital divide, at church: Wired writes about the churches that have thrived as worship largely moved online during the pandemic — and the struggles of others that didn’t have the resources to go virtual.
Eight-year-old Leo wrote a stern letter to his NPR station for not having more broadcasts about dinosaurs. So NPR asked Leo to interview a dinosaur expert. It was delightful.
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