Why is Elon Musk feuding with Australia and Brazil over free speech? | Technology


Elon Musk, the self-proclaimed free speech absolutist and CEO of X, Tesla, and SpaceX, is once again at the centre of a heated debate about free speech and censorship.

Since buying X, the platform formally known as Twitter, in 2022, Musk has sparred with governments and public figures around the world about what is acceptable to post online.

The mercurial billionaire is now embroiled in separate legal battles with the governments of Brazil and Australia over their attempts to curtail content deemed to be harmful, such as misinformation, violent material and racist speech.

In each case, Musk has accused government officials of stifling free speech.

But his critics say he is emboldening extremists and cherry-picking cases as he has complied with takedown notices elsewhere.

Why is Musk in a dispute with Brazil?

Musk’s dispute with Brazilian authorities is part of an ongoing debate about how to handle “digital militias” associated with right-wing former President Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro’s online supporters have been the subject of a five-year investigation by Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes for allegedly spreading fake news and hate speech during his tenure.

The judge is also overseeing an investigation into a coup attempt by Bolsonaro’s supporters after he lost the 2022 election to current left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

As part of his investigation, de Moraes banned 150 accounts belonging to the “digital militias” – a fact that was made public earlier this year when media reported that many of those accounts were still active.

The move, which has been controversial in Brazil, piqued the interest of Musk, who in April fired off a series of tweets directed at the judge, calling the bans “aggressive censorship”.

Musk also said X would “lift all restrictions” on the banned accounts, although the platform said it had complied with the orders though it intended to challenge them in court.

“This judge has brazenly and repeatedly betrayed the constitution and people of Brazil. He should resign or be impeached,” Musk said on X. “Shame.”

In response, de Moraes launched an investigation into Musk for obstruction of justice.

Why is Musk at odds with Australia?

As Musk battles it out in Latin America’s most populous country, he is also at odds with Australia’s internet watchdog.

The stoush with the country’s eSafety Commissioner centres on a knife attack carried out on April 16 during a livestreamed service at an Orthodox Assyrian church in Sydney.

Police have charged five teenagers over the attack, including a 16-year-old boy accused of stabbing Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel and a priest.

After the attack, eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant issued a global takedown notice for videos of the event to X and Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram.

Inman Grant has argued that posts of the attack should be taken down everywhere, including outside Australia, as internet users can easily avail of virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent domestic geo-blocking.

While Meta complied with the order, X has only geo-blocked the videos in Australia.

On Wednesday, Australia’s Federal Court extended an emergency injunction ordering X to remove the videos.

Musk has refused to back down, accusing Australia of attempting to impose censorship worldwide.

“Our concern is that if ANY country is allowed to censor content for ALL countries, which is what the Australian ‘eSafety Commissar’ is demanding, then what is to stop any country from controlling the entire Internet?” Musk said on X.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has in turn accused Musk of thinking he is above the law and being an “arrogant billionaire.”

It remains an open question whether or not the courts will affirm the right of the Australian authorities to order the removal of content viewable outside the country.

What’s next for X?

X’s legal teams are going to be busy.

Earlier this week, Brazil’s de Moraes gave X until April 26 to explain why the platform had allegedly not fully complied with the court order to block certain accounts that authorities say are still active.

Separately, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters rallied to support Musk this week as he continues his legal fight.

In Australia, X is fighting the global takedown order ahead of a court hearing on May 10, with the platform facing fines of about $500,000 for each day of noncompliance.

Musk has signalled that further legal fights are on the horizon.

In January, he pledged to fund legal challenges to Ireland’s pending hate speech legislation

Is Musk a defender of free speech?

Whether Musk is a defender of free speech or a right-wing provocateur is to a great extent in the eye of the beholder.

Since his takeover of X, Musk has dramatically scaled back moderation of the platform and reinstated numerous banned accounts, including that of former United States President Donald Trump.

But Musk’s critics have noted that despite his willingness to spar with Brazil and Australia, he has complied with similar takedown orders from Turkey and India, including content critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Some of Musk’s detractors argue that his principles only extend to figures he personally agrees with, such as Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Argentina’s new President Javier Milei.

Meanwhile, although the US is known for its especially permissive laws and attitudes towards speech, other countries have taken a more proactive approach to clamping down on misinformation and hateful content.


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