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NEW DELHI : Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk wants to make the platform a bastion for free speech, but it may be easier said than done, said experts.

It will be a challenge to find the right balance between promoting free speech and government directives on taking down content, as the definition of free speech may differ from country to country, they added.

“The issue with all these platforms is that they haven’t treated problematic content at par. For instance certain media reports have flagged Facebook’s inconsistency in applying its content moderation and hate-speech rules to posts from India. Such discriminatory treatment by these big tech platforms is deeply concerning and have far-reaching consequences," said Isha Suri, senior researcher, Centre for Internet and Society.

Twitter has to comply with local laws, which vary in every jurisdiction, she added. “If you look at any law, be it privacy, rights that citizens of the European Union enjoy, we do not."

Musk has been vocal about free speech and was critical of the ban on former US president Donald Trump last year. After acquiring Twitter, Musk said in a Twitter post: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy."

“It will be interesting to see how Twitter balances any policies to safeguard free speech with IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 rules," said Akash Karmakar, partner at law firm Panag & Babu.

In February 2021, India had notified stricter guidelines for social media intermediaries that require them to take down unlawful content within 24 hours of receiving complaints.

India is Twitter’s third-largest market with 23.6 million monthly active users, according to Statista.com. It has 76.9 million and 58 million users in US and Japan, respectively.

Prasanto K. Roy, a tech policy consultant, said Musk’s Twitter is likely to be less pliable with government requests, and that may lead to more confrontations. Twitter has been at loggerheads with governments even before the takeover by Musk. During the farmers’ protests last year, Twitter was asked by the Centre to take down more than 1,100 accounts and posts which were supportive of the protests against the controversial farm laws. Twitter refused to comply initially, but subsequently gave in.

However, a section of legal experts said Twitter’s stance on compliance with Indian law is not likely to change. “It’s a cardinal rule that intermediaries should act as a mere conduit and not modify the information they host," said Karmakar. “To enjoy immunity granted to an intermediary, it will have to take down problematic content immediately when reported or discovered."

That said, others are of the view that if Musk’s stance on free speech starts influencing its general content moderation rules, it will add to Twitter’s woes. “India will be the least of Musk’s worries. If hands-off moderation approach becomes the norm on Twitter, I expect EU to be the first to crack down heavily," Alok P. Kumar, co-founder, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, said.

Last week, the EU ratified its Digital Services Act to make internet firms and social media networks more accountable and transparent in an effort to curb hate speech and spread of misinformation.

“A laissez-faire approach deserves to be revisited in light of the harm to democracy, to life and personal liberty, and to individuals, that a well-organized misinformation campaign can cause," Karmakar warned.

Completely relying on artificial intelligence algorithms can also backfire instead of solving the problem, warned tech experts.

“Most AI algos in their current avatar is nothing but a faster and more relentless version of human moderators. Most AI algos inherit the same biases that human teams have," Jayanth Kolla, co-founder, Convergence Catalyst, said.

A combination of algorithmic moderators and human reviewers to curb hate speech can work in favour of Twitter, “except that it will be difficult to consistently use it in India, where different approaches to hate are expected based on the originator of the hate speech", said Roy.

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