Tension grows as Musk disputes content removal with Australian leadership

Fresh off his acquisition of Twitter, Elon Musk is taking his next fight to the very top of the government down under. The owner of Twitter and self-proclaimed champion of free speech has refused to comply with an Australian order to remove videos of violence from his platform, a move that has solicited the ire of the Prime Minister.

Just days after a knifeman attacked at a mall earlier this month, Australia was rocked by another stabbing incident in the suburbs of Sydney when, on April 15, a bishop and a priest were attacked during a live-streamed sermon. Graphic footage of the attack, which the government deemed terrorism, quickly circulated online and sparked protests near the church scene of the crime.

On April 16, Australia eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant ordered social media companies Twitter and Meta to take down the videos within 24 hours, under the powers of the country’s eSafety Act. “We know that every minute counts, and the more this content is up there, the more it is reshared, the more the velocity and the virality continues and we need to stem that,” she said. “This is really devastating content that cannot be unseen and causes serious emotional, mental and psychological damage.”

Meta reportedly acted swiftly. “Our priority is to protect people using our services from seeing this horrific content even if bad actors are determined to call attention to it,” a spokesperson told Reuters. But Twitter took a different approach.

In an April 19 statement, the platform’s Global Government Affairs team said that it believed the eSafety Commissioner’s order “was not within the scope of Australian law” and that certain posts ordered to be removed “did not violate Twitter’s rules on violent speech.” The statement said that Twitter complied with the order within Australia “pending a legal challenge” but that it did not remove the posts in question globally and was now being ordered to do so under threat of a daily fine of $785,000 AUD (about $500,000 USD).

“While Twitter respects the right of a country to enforce its laws within its jurisdiction, the eSafety Commissioner does not have the authority to dictate what content Twitter’s users can see globally. We will robustly challenge this unlawful and dangerous approach in court,” the statement said. “Global takedown orders go against the very principles of a free and open internet and threaten free speech everywhere.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese backed the eSafety Commission during a press conference on Monday, saying that he found it “extraordinary that Twitter chose not to comply and are trying to argue their case.”

“This isn’t about freedom of expression,” Albanese said, pointing to spread of disinformation surrounding the stabbing that he said was contributing to divisions and inflaming the already difficult situation. “Social media has a social responsibility.”

Musk responded with a flurry of posts on Twitter: the Prime Minister for calling out his company—which he suggests stands for “”—by name and it “absurd for any one country to attempt to censor the entire world.”

A spokesperson for the eSafety Commission told Reuters that last week’s order was directed at Twitter and Meta because they were deemed not to be “taking adequate steps to protect Australians” from content regarding the stabbing, while other companies including Google, Microsoft, Snap, and TikTok were working with the office to reduce “spread of the material.”

The Commission sought an injunction against Twitter on Monday from a federal court, arguing that the platform’s “geoblocking” of the material was insufficient compliance with the order because geographical restrictions could be circumvented by Australians using VPNs. The court, saying it needed more time to respond, a two-day injunction requiring Twitter to hide the content from all users worldwide until Wednesday at 5 p.m. local time, when the matter will be considered further.

In a series of interviews on Tuesday, Albanese again expressed support for the eSafety Commission and fired back at Musk: “We’ll do what’s necessary to take on this arrogant billionaire who thinks he’s above the law, but also above common decency,” he told . “The idea that someone would go to court for the right to put up violent content on a platform shows how out-of-touch Mr. Musk is.”

On Australia’s , Albanese continued to dig in on Musk, calling him an “egotist” who “is saying more about himself than anything else.”

“He’s putting his ego and putting his billionaire’s dollars towards taking a court case for the right to put more violent content on that will sow social division and cause distress to people who are on his platform,” Albanese said. “No one wants censorship here. What we want, though, is the application of a bit of common sense … Surely that’s not too much to ask.”

Meanwhile, Musk has continued to argue that he does not believe he is “” but rather that Twitter should only comply with takedown orders within the country of their jurisdiction and that global takedown orders are “.”

“No president, prime minister or judge,” Musk said, naming positions of power he’s shown he’s happy to pick fights with, “has authority over all of Earth!”