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Thinking beyond the X vs Australia clash

By Mamtimin Ala - posted Wednesday, 22 May 2024

More than 30 years ago, Susan Strange, a key figure in developing international political economy as a scholarly discipline, asked a fundamental question about a world gradually becoming globalised politically and economically: who holds power in the global system? This question resonates with the current epic clash between X, formerly known as Twitter, and the eSafety Commission of Australia. In this context, Strange’s question can be reframed as follows: who holds power in social media—a state or a corporation?

Looking back, multinational corporations were once subservient to state jurisdictions despite their burgeoning influence over interstate relationships. This perspective, rooted in the state’s authority, regulated corporations’ status, capital, and operations. However, a new paradigm emerged, one that mirrors the interdependence between states and multinational corporations, driven by their escalating capital, revenues, and influence. Corporations now rely on states to provide a secure, fair, and conducive business environment for their multinational operations and the protection of property rights. Conversely, states depend on corporations for job creation, tax revenues, and technological exchanges. As corporations amass more power and capital, a third trend emerges, one that foresees corporations potentially surpassing states in power, posing a potential threat to their dominance.

Let us examine this contextually within the current clash between X and the eSafety Commission, highlighting this issue: Who decides the content exposure on one of the most powerful transnational social media platforms? Where does the jurisdiction of a corporation and a state start and end? Who should have power over decisions made on the levels, nature, and extent of cyberspace liberties of freedom of speech—the state or the corporation? 


Upon analysing this clash, the situation appears relatively straightforward on the surface: X received a content removal request from the eSafety Commissioner about the violent incident categorised as a terrorist attack by the Australian Police in Wakeley. X has appealed this request, citing its content moderation policies as adequately balancing its duty to uphold freedom of speech to prevent harm and maintain safety. 

Singularly considered, the eSafety Commissioner’s request seems reasonable; however, the motivations behind why this specific incident should be removed from X while the content of other incidents related to Australia have not received such requests. A recent example is content associated with the violent incident at Westfields in Bondi. Whilst not defined as a terrorist attack, however, being significantly more graphic with more significant casualties and with the capacity to cause heightened levels of psychological damage, the content of this incident has not been requested for removal. It is further questionable why X has been singled out while identical posts are still on other social media platforms like Meta, formerly known as Facebook. Thus, the eSafety Commission lacks consistency and clear guidelines on what should be removed and why.

Considering X’s arguments, while correctly questioning the intention of the eSafety Commission from a free speech perspective, it is an exaggeration of the issue to conflate the removal request for one incident with censoring it as akin to controlling the whole internet. It is called a catastrophising fallacy. Furthermore, its content regulation policy lacks clarity, as many people in Australia perceive it: how to decide what to show, what to take down, and why. Does it have an overarching right beyond the regulations of individual states to decide? If so, who regulates X? 

However, Elon’s concern for free speech should not be underestimated. Elon, praised by some as a defender of free speech, is still in the same mood to defend the rights of global internet users to see what happened in Australia despite its alarming nature. Crucially, the decision of Elon Musk cannot disperse our anxieties over the potential dangers of pushing freedom of speech too far, making it difficult to determine what should be allowed and what should be censored with some disturbing reflections: what if he is establishing his own global media empire that operates outside the legal jurisdiction of any state, all in the name of defending free speech? If all forms of free speech are allowed on one centralised global social media platform, can we still ensure that our freedom of speech is protected as we initially anticipated? Can free speech exist in a completely monopolised social media environment?

This lack of consistency in the ask and response is the kernel of this epic conflict. This clash has far more significant implications for understanding appropriation when exercising our freedom of speech in the future. While obliged to abide by the regulations of individual states or a political bloc like the EU, X has its content regulation policy. However, this policy is not readily adaptable to the varying regulations of diverse states, which have different cyber regulations operative with various levels of censorship. 

On May 10, 2024, the Albanese Government announced its intention to establish a Joint Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the influence and effects of social media on Australian society. This decision was prompted by Meta’s decision to stop paying for news content and the ongoing conflict between the e-Safety Commissioner and Elon Musk. 


Establishing this committee is a crucial step in the ongoing battle against disseminating false information and harmful content online. However, the task at hand is complex. It involves navigating the complex landscape of state legislation and the definitions of misinformation, which often differ from those used by tech giants. Moreover, the absence of a comprehensive international regulatory body for online content poses a significant challenge, limiting the government’s ability to tackle these issues effectively. These challenges are not confined to a single country but have a global reach, with various platforms for sharing and the potential for endless proliferation. 

It is crucial to strike a delicate balance between regulating harmful content and preserving freedom of speech. Excessive scrutiny of online information could result in censorship and self-censorship, which may alienate the public from government control and decrease trust in the government. It could also strengthen support for tech giants like X and individuals like Elon Musk, who may be perceived as true advocates for free speech. Thus, fostering constructive engagement between tech giants and governments at local, regional, and global levels is essential to addressing these common challenges collectively. Failure to do so may exacerbate the existing clash rather than resolve it.

This decision of the government will have a deep impact on the ongoing clash between the state and corporations, including tech giants, and determine who ultimately controls the content we see online. Furthermore, it tells us how multinational corporations are increasing their influence and becoming more potent through professional acumen, technocratic efficiency, mass-increasing capital, market power, including monopoly power, and global business and economic networks. On the other hand, states are becoming more desperate to regulate the content of the digital sphere and less potent in regulating the behaviour of corporations.

Then, the fundamental question is this: imagine a world where two powers are vying for control over what we see online with dire consequences—state power, which is frenzied to crusade against the digital separate beyond its complete control, becomes a more controlling entity domestically. Corporate technocratic power, on the other hand, will gradually take over states and their traditional functions to govern us and decide what we see in a cyber world. In such a world, it is not comforting to see who then legislates these corporations against states, which, at least, have a constitutional framework limiting their jurisdiction, power, and control. 

We find ourselves caught in a fierce clash between these two influential forces as a public, which is no longer amusing but worth reflecting on our shared future. It raises concerns about the unsettling possibility that whoever determines what we see online determines what we say and think.


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About the Author

Dr Mamtimin Ala is an Australian Uyghur based in Sydney, and holds the position of President of the East Turkistan Government in Exile. He is the author of Worse than Death: Reflections on the Uyghur Genocide, a seminal work addressing the critical plight of the Uyghurs. For insights and updates, follow him on Twitter: @MamtiminAla.

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