Vijaya Gadde

CNBC/YouTube

Elon Musk kicked off his ‘free speech’ crusade by firing Twitter’s biggest free speech advocate

She pushed a vision Elon Musk claims he wants.

 

AJ Dellinger

Tech

On Thursday, billionaire Elon Musk completed his takeover of Twitter and began purging the company’s executive staff. Among those let go was Vijaya Gadde, the company’s head of legal, policy, and trust since 2013.

The decision to fire her was celebrated by certain parts of Twitter, including some of Musk’s followers. Gadde became a controversial figure among some on the platform—including Musk himself, who earlier this year amplified a tweet calling her the company’s “top censorship advocate.” 

The complaints against Gadde stem in part from high-profile cases of content moderation, including the decision to ban former President Donald Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot 

There is a perception, primarily among far-right Twitter users and those that identify themselves as “free speech absolutists” that Twitter has banned users for dissenting from more progressive ideology—even though research found Twitter to actually amplify right-wing voices

Gadde, according to Musk and many of his supporters, has been a force for limiting free speech on Twitter. But experts in the fields of technology policy, freedom of speech, and content moderation warn that by firing Gadde, Musk removed one of the most fervent defenders of user privacy and free expression online.

For Musk, the idea of freedom of speech seems to stem from the ability to express unpopular views—something of which there is no shortage of on Twitter. Users who place themselves in the “free speech absolutist” camp often point to users being banned for things like deadnaming or misgendering people, or for spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. This type of content—which specifically violates Twitter’s terms of service—should be allowed, they argue, because it does not break the law.

What this position fails to consider, though, is the wide array of laws a platform that operates globally might run into. It is in that space, experts say, that Gadde did some of the most important work in defending free speech. 

“I think the big change that Vijaya ushered in during [her] long tenure was to embrace that for Twitter to truly protect free expression it would have to take a positive, active role in its defense around the world,” Jason Goldman, former Vice President of Product at Twitter, told The Daily Dot. “That meant protecting user privacy and anonymity in more oppressive regimes.”

Twitter was involved in a number of legal challenges in which the company took a stand to protect unpopular speech in other regions. Earlier this year, the company sued the government of India in an attempt to push back against laws passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that allowed the government to remove content critical of its leadership. The law required Twitter and other social media companies to hide or remove content at the request of Indian officials.

Likewise, Twitter filed lawsuits against the government of Turkey in 2014 when it blocked access to Twitter after the platform was used to spread information alleging corruption against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish government.

Musk, it seems, is less likely to be willing to fight these types of restrictive laws. He’s expressed that by “free speech,” he means “that which matches the law”—suggesting he’d have no objections kowtowing to onerous and censorious demands of governments, as long as it’s their law. That’s good news for the Indian government, which has expressed its expectation that Musk’s Twitter comply with requests to remove critical content. 

Musk also has a different set of incentives when responding to challenges from foreign governments. Anupam Chander, the Scott K. Ginsburg Professor of Law and Technology at Georgetown University, told the Daily Dot that Twitter is different than most large tech companies because “it didn’t have boots on the ground in most countries it operates in.” That allows Twitter to reject some of the requests of foreign governments to censor or restrict content on the platform.

“If countries ask Twitter to do things that the company’s leadership finds unethical, that leadership has said, ‘We’re not necessarily going to do what you tell us to do,’” Chander explained. “That has very much been the Vijaya Gadde era of Twitter.”

For Musk, there may be other businesses to consider in these countries that could make him less likely to challenge laws—even when they threaten free speech on his platform. “He’s selling cars, he’s selling satellite internet and he needs local licensing to make all those things happen. He isn’t in a position to snub those governments as the prior leadership was,” Chander said.

It’s possible that Musk and his followers are more focused on the commonly perceived American ideal of free speech, but even that would ignore Gabbe and Twitter’s fight to protect users in the United States.

Twitter has never required users to publicly identify themselves—a policy both counter to other social media, like Facebook’s once-strict real name policy, and to Musk’s own suggestion that all users have their identity authenticated. It has, on multiple occasions, defended in court a user’s right to remain anonymous. That includes a case this year in which Twitter fought a court order to unmask a user who had criticized billionaires and a famous case in which Twitter refused to reveal the identity of a user who created a parody account mocking former Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.

These cases speak to the breadth of the work that Gabbe and the Twitter legal team did, well beyond simply issuing bans or suspensions for content that violated the company’s rules.

“While a lot of attention goes to the issue of ‘permanent bans,’ that really is but one aspect of a whole array of moderation issues that will affect Twitter,” noted Lauren Weinstein, the co-founder of People For Internet Responsibility and a consultant who has been working on the development of the internet since the 1970s. “Twitter’s Trust and Safety team had been taking on what has become the generally accepted view of large social media platform moderation models to mitigate child sex abuse material, hate speech, disinformation, and related abuses.”

While Musk has certainly given consideration to spam and bots on the platform, it’s unclear what thought he’s given to most of the work that Gabbe and the team at Twitter were involved in. 

That is perhaps best illuminated by the apparent plan to upend all permanent bans on the platform. Musk has expressed publicly that he opposes permanent bans in most cases and would invite previously suspended users back onto the platform, including Donald Trump. 

The idea behind this, in Musk’s apparent estimation, is that while Trump and other people like Alex Jones might say unpopular things, they aren’t hurting others by saying it. But that speech does actually have an effect on other users. As Goldman notes, part of Gabbe’s defense of free speech included “establishing stronger community guidelines so that voices wouldn’t be drowned out by hate and trolling.” When people are less likely to face threats of violence or vitriol for expressing themselves, they are more likely to do it

Reinstating these voices, Chander says, shows Musk’s embrace of free expression is somewhat opportunistic. “I don’t think that I would see him as a champion of free expression, by any means. I think it will be an episodic defense, and I don’t think it will be as, as principled a defense of free expression as Twitter has tried,” Chander said. 

Correction: This post originally misspelled Anupam Chander‘s name.

web_crawlr
We crawl the web so you don’t have to.
Sign up for the Daily Dot newsletter to get the best and worst of the internet in your inbox every day.
Sign up now for free
 
The Daily Dot