If Elon Musk wants to defend free speech, how about Iran and China

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Free speech does not begin and end with Ye, Donald Trump or information about Hunter Biden’s laptop.

In the weeks since Elon Musk took over Twitter, he has set off important and contentious public conversations about freedom of expression online and its limits. But debates about Trump’s account, antisemitic tweets from the musician formerly known as Kanye West, and whether Twitter was overly censorious of Hunter Biden-related tweets are only a small slice of what free speech means.

Let me drag the conversation over to China and Iran, where the purest form of freedom of expression is happening under Musk’s nose.

In rare displays for China, people in recent weeks have been protesting online and in the streets over the government’s covid-19 restrictions, and some of them have demanded broader loosening of the government’s control over their lives.

There have been months of protests in Iran set off by the death of Mahsa Amini, who was detained by Iran’s morality police over an alleged violation of the country’s dress code for women.

Social media including Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, WeChat and Telegram have been important tools to help people in China and Iran organize and share their views with the outside world and one another. Protesters in those countries are defying the authorities’ internet controls and their countries’ laws, and taking great risks to their safety.

In recent days, governments in both countries appear to have made small concessions to protesters’ demands, although it’s not clear yet how much real change they will allow.

What is happening in Iran and China is what Musk and other free-speech-loving internet bosses should be fighting for. But Musk has said almost nothing about what Twitter should do to give people a voice when their own governments do not want people to have it.

Over the weekend in a Twitter Spaces audio chat, Musk was asked what Twitter could do to support citizens in countries such as China, Iran and Ukraine where social media has helped people stand up for themselves. (In Ukraine, they’ve been trying to combat propaganda from Russia’s government about the war that Russia’s leaders deny is a war.)

Musk reiterated his view that people should be able to speak freely within the bounds of the law. The dramatic episodes of defiance in Iran and China were a glancing mention in an hours-long discussion. (This came up about 2 hours and 25 minutes into the Twitter Spaces chat.)

Okay, here are a couple of follow-up questions for Musk: What if a government’s own laws deny people’s fundamental rights to free speech? And what happens when government censorship, digital snooping or online propaganda undermine free speech?

These are not theoretical questions. China and Iran have been among the most successful governments in the world at co-opting and censoring the internet both inside and outside those countries’ borders.

Twitter, Facebook and other foreign apps are banned in China and Iran, although people find ways around the blockades. Outside China, groups linked to the government have repeatedly flooded Twitter and other sites with false information or chum to try to skew the world’s beliefs about everything from covid-19 to the Winter Olympics.

Years before Musk took over Twitter, Saudi Arabia’s government spied on dissidents outside the country who used Twitter to criticize Saudi leadership, and a U.S. jury convinced one former Twitter employee of taking bribes from Saudi officials in their surveillance scheme.

And even in some large democracies including India and Indonesia, laws give authorities the right to order the internet scrubbed of posts that authorities consider subversive or a threat. Critics of those laws say they are often intended to silence dissent that authorities don’t like. Under the company’s former management, Twitter took India’s government to court and refused orders to block some accounts of citizens that Twitter said were expressing their rights under India’s own constitution.

What internet companies should do about governments determined to interfere with free speech is an essential question for Musk as Twitter’s owner and as a self-proclaimed free speech purist. He has said very little about this tricky issue that all American internet companies have struggled with.

Musk didn’t reply to a request for comment.

Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, suggested on Twitter a few steps that Musk could take if he wanted to preserve freedom of expression from governments’ interference.

Stamos said that Musk could commit to regularly making public any communications with government officials, political party functionaries and candidates who demand posts be restricted or deleted. He also suggested that Musk could commit to rebuilding the Twitter teams he gutted that are responsible for spotting and stopping covert government-affiliated online influence campaigns, including those from the U.S. military and China.

Stamos’s recommendations go further than the disclosures that Twitter and other U.S. internet companies already make, including releasing government requests for content removal.

There will be more examples of officials trying to restrict internet free expression for all sorts of purported reasons — including to defend elections in Brazil, to stop Holocaust denial from spreading in Europe, and to silence government critics in Somalia.

This is nuanced subject with few easy answers. But it would be helpful to freedom if Musk treated the free expression of Indians and Chinese citizens with at least as much consideration as he gave to Ye’s free speech.

What you need to know about ChatGPT

A few days ago, the public got its first look at the most sophisticated digital assistant you have ever seen. It’s like Siri but actually smart, or autocomplete for everything.

My colleagues explain here how the artificial intelligence chatbot called ChatGPT works, and why it’s a big deal that artificial intelligence technologies are churning out writing that can seem as if it came from humans.

People are trying out ChatGPT for clever experiments like writing poems and college-style essays and generating advice on what types of shoes men should own. (You can also try ChatGPT yourself.)

Whenever you have a glimpse at the potential of computers to outthink humans, you might immediately wonder about the threat that artificial intelligence will wipe out jobs, make it easy for kids to cheat in school, or enable computer-generated lies at mass scale. You might also be excited about the ways that automating drudge writing tasks will make your life easier.

There is also a tendency to jump to conclusions about a novel technology. New technologies tend to take much longer than optimists expect to worm their way into our lives. For more than a decade, experts have predicted that computer-driven cars would become mainstream within a few years. Driverless cars are still many years from being mainstream.

A challenge for you and me is not to minimize either the awe-inspiring potential or the pitfalls of cutting-edge technology — and also not to allow what’s next to obscure what needs to be done with technology that exists right now.

Social media has been around for more than 15 years, and we are still figuring out how to live with it, how to regulate it and how we want companies to conduct themselves. A significant percentage of Americans don’t have internet service. The app economy controlled by Apple and Google alters what digital businesses invent for you.

The handy thing about humans is that we can hold complicated and conflicting beliefs in our brains. ChatGPT can be a miracle. It can be dangerous. It can be half baked. It can be overhyped. It can be underhyped. And it can be just one more technology that we need to shape to serve us.

If you are a human on the internet, you probably use Google. Here is one setting to change that does the most to stop Google from tracking your search and web browsing activity.

On the Web, go to myaccount.google.com → Data & Privacy → Web & App Activity. You can also get here directly on the Activity controls page. Turn off the toggle for Web & App Activity so it is gray instead of blue. A pop-up will ask you to confirm you’re ready to “pause” the data collection.

Read more from my colleague Heather Kelly on Google privacy settings to change right now.

Brag about YOUR one tiny win! Tell us about an app, gadget, or tech trick that made your day a little better. We might feature your advice in a future edition of The Tech Friend.

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