The next time you’re about to fire off a post on social media, remember to first ask: What would Chinese leader Xi Jinping or Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi say?
It sounds far-fetched, but recent moves from some leading names in tech and social media paint a worrying picture: Foreign censorship laws are increasingly determining what people in free countries, including the United States, can do online.
You might not live within the borders of China or India, but that doesn’t mean their censorship laws won’t affect what you write, see, and say—and some American-run companies are helping them enforce these rules globally.
Last week, investigative journalist Saurav Das shared the fact that—in response to legal demands—Twitter blocked access to two tweets he had posted about India’s Minister of Home Affairs, Amit Shah. Censorship demands originating from the Indian government are nothing new, and Twitter boss Elon Musk has thus far agreed to grant them, blocking the material from view within India.
This is in line with Musk’s faulty understanding of “free speech” as a simple reflection of an individual country’s laws, no matter how oppressive.
But this time, Twitter did something different: It blocked the tweets not just within India, where Indian law applies, but everywhere. As with many of Twitter’s moves of late, it’s unclear if this decision is a result of Musk’s personal directives; understaffed teams; slipshod, off-the-cuff policy making; or all three. Twitter has yet to offer an explanation, despite requests from the journalist whose tweets were blocked.
“Spin the wheel and see what political expression is next on the chopping block. It might just be your own.”
Twitter’s international application of local law is worrying enough on its own. But it looks as if Twitter’s global block may not just be a concerning isolated incident, it may instead be part of a deeply troubling trend of tech companies willingly choosing to allow the most authoritarian diktats to guide content moderation.
Midjourney, another San Francisco-based company, is part of that trend. It quickly rose through the ranks as one of the most popular AI image generators today, likely best known for being used to create the infamous images of Pope Francis clad in a Balenciaga puffer coat. But perhaps Midjourney should be known more for what images it won’t produce, instead of what it will.
Midjourney CEO David Holz announced last year that his program would explicitly forbid users to create images of China’s Xi Jinping. Users who attempt to do so are threatened with a ban. “Political satire in china is pretty not-okay,” Holz posted on Discord, according to The Washington Post. He added that “the ability for people in China to use this tech is more important than your ability to generate satire.”
Tech companies’ desire to remain accessible to the Chinese market will surprise no one, but Midjourney goes further than most of its peers. Instead of restricting political expression for the program’s users in China, it restricts such expression for all of its global users. Not only does Xi Jinping get to censor what’s said behind the Chinese internet’s Great Firewall but, on Midjourney at least, he gets to control what’s said right here in the U.S.
At the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), where I work, we combat threats to the First Amendment and freedom of expression in the United States every day. Unfortunately, business is booming. But while we combat the “free speech recession” blooming within our own borders, we can’t ignore the challenges that seep in from outside them.
Imagine the future of the global internet if tech companies and social media platforms continue this trend, making local censorship laws into international content moderation guidelines.
Today it might be tweets about Indian government officials and satirical images of Xi Jinping. But what words will be hidden from the global internet tomorrow: Criticism of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia? Endorsement of the anti-compulsory hijab protests in Iran? Opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Spin the wheel and see what political expression is next on the chopping block. It might just be your own.
But this does not have to be the future. We can and should expect more from companies operating in free countries and creating the platforms we use to express ourselves online.
Authoritarians wield an array of tools—from brute force to heavy-handed laws to subtle threats—in their campaigns to silence dissent and opposition arising within their own borders. Tech companies in free countries should not arm them any further. They already control not just the voices of their own subjects, but now increasingly what anyone, anywhere can say about them.
That’s a recipe for disaster in a world that tragically continues to grow less free by the day.
Sarah McLaughlin is senior scholar for global expression at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).