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A remarkable confrontation is taking place between an American internet company and the world’s largest democracy over the proper limits of freedom of speech.
The background is the ongoing demonstrations by farmers in India over the new agricultural laws. The Indian government, which invokes laws against activities that subvert or threaten public order, have asked Twitter to remove or hide more than 1,100 accounts it considers to encourage violence or spread false information.
Twitter has complied with a number of Indian orders. But Twitter refused to remove the accounts of journalists, activists, and others the company said they were exercising their right to appropriately criticize the government.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is saying that Twitter is breaking the law. Twitter is speech that India is violating its own laws. And democracy activists say tech companies like Twitter should not play around when governments effectively pass laws banning free speech.
There are frequent disputes between internet companies and governments – both democratic and not – over whether or not posts violate a country’s laws. What is unusual here is how explicit and public the disagreement is, and India has threatened to imprison Twitter staff.
I spoke with David Kaye, a law professor, former United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of speech and author of “Police speech”, about Twitter’s decisions in India, how they can resonate and the consequences of some tech companies setting the rules of global discourse.
Shira: Do you think Twitter is making the right call?
Kaye: It’s correct. Twitter is basically speech that they will not comply with orders they deem incompatible with Indian law and violate human freedom of expression.
Under the Modi government, India did not act democratically about the right of its people to speak out against its government. I’m not sure why Twitter chose this moment to take a stance that wasn’t two or three years ago, when the company took action against posters about Kashmir after pressure from the government.
During my role at the United Nations at the time, I asked Twitter to explain what happened. The company did not respond. In a way, this week was Twitter’s response.
But Twitter is challenging a democratically elected government.
People should not get the impression that these companies consider themselves above the law. One important difference in India is that the order comes from a department of government – not a court. Twitter says that India’s request to block accounts or remove posts does not follow the usual legal regulations.
What other questions does the impasse ask you?
I have the same question people asked after Trump was banned from Facebook and Twitter: What about all the other countries? Will Twitter also get stronger against governments in Turkey, Egypt or Saudi Arabia? And how far is Twitter ready to go? Is it at risk of being blocked in India?
(Twitter doesn’t automatically comply when the government – including the US – asks the company to take down content or transfer users’ data. Here’s Twitter’s revelation of how often it responds to requests. Such of the authorities in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, India and USA.)
How should we feel when certain internet companies have the power to shape people’s engagement with their governments and set appropriate limits of performance?
That’s a problem. These companies have enormous and untold power. The fundamental question is: Who decides what is legitimate speech on these platforms?
Both internet companies and governments deserve to be blamed. The companies have not provided transparency in their operations, their rules and their enforcement. Instead, we have perpetual cycles of decisions that look like important ones to public pressure. And governments for the most part haven’t done the hard work of creating smart regulations.
What does smart regulation look like?
The challenge for democratic governments is to increase the transparency of social media and put it within the regulatory framework – but not impose abusive content rules and interfere with freedom of expression. of users or companies’ right to create an environment they want for users. That is the persistent tension.
The Digital Services Act proposed by the European Union is quite a complex law about this. America is still solving this problem.
(Also read Tom Friedman, curator of the New York Times’ Opinion column, who writes that him the origin of Europe’s adaptive Internet strategy.)
Do we really hate fighting on Facebook?
Facebook is starting to experiment with reducing the number of political posts and materials in its news feed.
The reason, Mark Zuckerberg explained recently, is that people tell Facebook they “don’t want politics and fight for their experience.” But, uhhh, have them watched Facebook?
Like my colleague, Kevin Roose is reporting endlessly – and as an account he created daily tweet Facebook posts with links tend to get the most reactions, shares, and comments, especially public political rage. So what is Facebook doing? Kevin and I talked about this:
Shira: It’s not that your analysis shows people do Want politics and anger in their news feed?
Kevin: People have a lot of people and their stated preferences often don’t match their revealed interests. If a registered dietitian surveys me for my ideal diet, I will list healthy foods. But if you put a Big Mac in front of me, I eat it. I find Facebook users trustworthy To speak they don’t want politics and anger, but when their friend posts a great meme about Bernie Sanders…
I also suspect that a relatively small number of people are responsible for the huge amount of engagement on Facebook – and that those super shares are actually engaged in politics. Facebook says that only 6% of what US users view is political content, so most Facebook actually could be Instant Pot recipes and baby photos.
Is Facebook’s silence largely on people who don’t want to get involved in politics?
Ability! Or people are not being honest about (or not knowing) what they really want. I guess we will find out information from this Facebook test.
Should Facebook give us more of what we actually clicked or what we did To speak we want to click?
Essentially, Facebook, like all social media apps, is designed to give us more of what we like. It’s very attractive, but this doesn’t work out well for democracy.
So what if a social network was designed to feed our aspiring selves, instead of our lizard brain pulses? Do we want more of it? Or will we miss the movie and the war?
Before we go …
Unofficial US unemployment hotline: During the pandemic, many Americans turned to Reddit message boards for advice on how to navigate the confusing unemployment insurance system, writes my colleague Ella Koeze. It is also a place to pay tribute to other people in difficult circumstances.
Falling into the algorithm gap: Specialty clothing makers for the disabled say Facebook’s automated systems often reject their ads and product listings. Vanessa Friedman, my colleague, writes that the problem is computers have bad nuances and Facebook’s systems often flag adaptive clothing as advertising for medical devices or “adult content”, which is contrary to provisions of the company.
The digital divide, at church: Wired writes about churches that thrived as much of the worship moved online during the pandemic – and the struggles of others not having enough resources to become virtual.
Eight-year-old Leo wrote a stern letter to his NPR station because there were no more dinosaur broadcasts. So NPR asked Leo to interview a dinosaur expert. It is interesting.
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