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Elon Musk Has Inherited Twitter’s India Problem

One night last February, Indian police showed up at the home address of a Twitter employee in New Delhi. There, the employee was served with a legal notice and told to accompany officers to a police station.

Indian farmers were staging mass anti-government protests in the streets of New Delhi at the time, and India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party was seeking to quell dissent on social media. Authorities had already sent Twitter legal demands asking it to block accounts that had criticized the country’s ruling party. The list of accounts included activists involved in the protests, opposition politicians and journalists. Twitter had refused to block dozens of accounts, drawing the ire of the government and much of the Indian press.

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Outside the Twitter worker’s home, a standoff ensued. With the employee holed up inside the house, Twitter’s lawyers and policy staff in both India and the U.S. made a series of frantic phone calls, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. Meanwhile, a group of police officers waited out on the street, in full view of the employee’s neighbors. Ultimately, the officers left empty-handed, after Twitter offered to send a lawyer to the police station to answer questions instead. Twitter decided not to publicize the incident in order to not give Indian authorities the impression the perceived intimidation effort had succeeded, according to the people with knowledge of the incident, who spoke to TIME on the condition that they to remain anonymous to protect their job prospects and personal safety. (Neither the employee, nor the Indian government, nor the Delhi police responded to requests for comment for this story.) Twitter, which was bought by Elon Musk in October, declined to comment and did not respond to follow-up requests.

The visit from the police was understood at high levels inside Twitter to be an attempt at intimidation by Indian authorities, according to four people with knowledge of the incident. It is just one example of the intense pressure the company has come under in recent years while operating under what many have called an increasingly authoritarian regime, as it pursues much-needed growth in international markets. In a whistleblower complaint filed in July, Twitter’s former head of security Peiter Zatko alleged that foreign governments, including India’s, had used the safety of Twitter staff based in their countries as “leverage” in order to force the company to comply with their demands.

Despite that pressure, Twitter in other ways robustly resisted state censorship demands prior to its takeover, in an effort to preserve the platform as a relative haven for free speech in India. This July, while the company was still under its previous ownership, Twitter filed a lawsuit against the Indian government in a regional court, challenging its demands to remove 39 tweets and accounts, the details of which are under seal.

But now that Twitter has been acquired by Musk, the future of that lawsuit—and the platform’s broader role as one of the few remaining forums for relatively free expression in India—is in doubt.

Musk has called himself a “free speech absolutist,” and has committed to bolstering freedom of expression on the platform. But he has also said he wants Twitter to follow local laws in the countries where it operates. “There’s this deep tension in the way that Elon Musk has talked about how he’s going to run the platform,” says Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor at Stanford Law whose research focuses on online speech. “His proclamations about being a free speech platform would suggest standing up to authoritarians, who are the biggest threat to free speech. But he has also said he will obey local laws—which in many areas of the world, means being far more restrictive than Twitter’s current content moderation rules.”

Amid all of the upheaval surrounding Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, it appears he has spent little, if any, time on India and other regions of the world where free expression on the platform is at risk. “Elon has shown that his only priority with Twitter users is how to monetize them,” wrote an attorney on Twitter’s privacy team in internal messages reported Thursday by the Verge. “I do not believe he cares about the human rights activists, the dissidents, our users in un-monetizable regions, and all the other users who have made Twitter the global town square you have all spent so long building, and we all love.” One of Musk’s first moves after acquiring Twitter was to fire its legal and policy chief Vijaya Gadde, who had spearheaded Twitter’s careful but ultimately pragmatic approach to the Indian government. Meanwhile, Yoel Roth, the executive who oversaw Twitter’s efforts to tackle hate speech, misinformation and spam on the platform, resigned on Thursday, according to media reports.

Adding to the uncertainty of Twitter’s future in India are Musk’s other business interests, which some observers say present potential conflicts. His most valuable company, Tesla Inc., is currently lobbying the Indian government to reduce taxes on electric vehicle imports.

Read More: Tesla’s Ambitions in India Will Test Elon Musk’s Commitment to Free Speech

“One of the big concerns about Musk’s ownership of Twitter is his susceptibility to business pressure due to his ownership of other businesses,” Douek says, citing Tesla’s plans for expansion in China, Brazil and India. “That means these markets present significant levers of pressure on Musk to cave on moderation and principles when push comes to shove.”

Musk gave an early indication that change is coming for Twitter’s stance in India when, on Monday, he fired some 90% of Twitter’s roughly 200 India-based staff, according to Bloomberg News, as part of swingeing job cuts across the entire organization, roughly halving the workforce globally. It is unclear whether Twitter’s legal team in India that was working on the lawsuit were included in those firings.

With the next hearing in the lawsuit scheduled just days away, on Nov. 16, Musk’s decision on whether to continue taking legal action against India’s government could have lasting repercussions, not only for the future of Twitter’s business, but also for freedom of speech in the country, often described as the world’s largest democracy. It’s also an indicator of the future of American tech platforms, and free expression online, in an increasingly multipolar world.

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Twitter’s ill-fated global expansion project

Twitter had kicked off 2021 with big plans for international growth. It designated two countries, India and Nigeria, as “global participation” markets in a bid to boost disappointing user growth in the global south, according to two of the people with knowledge of the matter and public-facing job adverts reviewed by TIME.

But in June 2021, amid rising tensions, the Nigerian government announced a nationwide ban of Twitter. The ban came after protesters used the platform to organize, and after Twitter deleted a post by the country’s President Muhammadu Buhari threatening to punish secessionist groups.

The ban in Nigeria had a devastating impact on Twitter’s “global participation” program. It also made Twitter employees in India increasingly fearful that the government there could choose to simply block the platform in the country, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. Twitter began to consider it increasingly important to do whatever it could to maintain a working relationship with the Indian government, the people said.

As Nigeria moved forward with a ban on Twitter, things looked to be going from bad to worse in India. In May 2021, after Twitter affixed a “manipulated media” label to a piece of misinformation shared by a BJP politician, New Delhi police had shown up at Twitter’s office in New Delhi with cameras in tow, in what local news media roundly described as a “raid.” Twitter staff had already vacated the office months earlier and all its employees were working from home due to the pandemic. But inside Twitter, the incident was understood to be another attempt at intimidation by the Indian authorities, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.

That year, Twitter’s former managing director for India, Manish Maheshwari, was reportedly named in at least two police reports, one citing tweets that had “outrage[d] the religious feelings of Hindus” and another citing a map of India on Twitter’s corporate website that showed the disputed territory of Kashmir as not a part of the country. Twitter eventually relocated Maheshwari to San Francisco, in what two people with knowledge of the matter said was a move partially related to concerns for his personal safety. Maheshwari, who no longer works for Twitter, did not respond to a request for comment. His former position in India remains unfilled to this day.

Meanwhile, new internet rules imposed by the Indian government were beginning to bite. The rules, which came into force shortly after the police visited the home of the Twitter employee in February 2021, ordered Twitter to comply with even higher numbers of government requests to block tweets and accounts. Under the rules, the government can demand the removal of any content that it deems defamatory, misleading, or to threaten “the unity, integrity, defense, security or sovereignty of India.” In the six months before the rules came into force, Twitter complied with just 9.1% of requests by Indian authorities to remove content. After the rules came into force, that percentage more than doubled to 19.5%, according to Twitter’s most recent transparency report. Over the same period, Twitter complied with nearly ten times as many government requests for private information concerning specific accounts, the report shows.

Nigeria lifted the seven-month ban on Twitter in January after the company reportedly agreed to terms set by the government, including registering in the country and paying local taxes, according to the BBC.

In India, Twitter is at a crossroads. If its new owner Musk chooses to continue with Twitter’s lawsuit against the Indian government, the company will remain in the difficult position it was before. If he drops the suit or it is unsuccessful, Musk’s proclaimed mission to protect freedom of speech on the platform would be hamstrung, since Twitter would likely be forced to comply with Indian government demands to block the accounts of activists and journalists. Another option could be to relocate Twitter’s few remaining India-based staff to other countries—a move that might free the company from government pressure, but that could also increase the risk of India banning the platform altogether.

“India is the most important site of battle for the future of freedom of expression online,” says Douek. “It could suggest a path for other countries to follow in terms of providing a model for how to, through the mechanisms of law, crack down on online speech. That’s why I’m really concerned to see that Twitter, one of the greatest holdouts [in India], may cave under its new owner.”