Elon Musk has ignored a Brazilian injunction instructing him to ban accounts on X. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Elon Musk vs. Brazil

The owner of X is making a stand for free speech. Rupa Subramanya reports on his showdown with an overmighty Brazilian judge.

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The warrior-king of X is fighting against censorship again, this time in the Supreme Court—of Brazil. The free speech absolutist has pitted himself against Judge Alexandre de Moraes, a man who claims to defend Brazilian democracy while throwing people in jail without trial.

It all started when the highest court in the South American country forced X to “block certain popular accounts in Brazil.” (X was prohibited from saying which accounts had been targeted, although de Moraes has a reputation for cracking down on far-right activity on social media.)

On Saturday evening, Elon Musk told the world in a tweet he’d be “lifting all restrictions,” saying the “judge has applied massive fines” and “threatened to arrest our employees.” It’s not clear which X workers are at risk—or what they might be charged with. But it’s since emerged that the “massive fines” equate to $20,000 per day for each reactivated account—not that the billionaire X CEO is bothered; he concluded his post: “Principles matter more than profit.”

On Sunday, de Moraes emerged—along with memes of him looking like Voldemort, in dark flowing robes and a cape. He blasted the X CEO for “obstruction of Brazilian justice,” “incitement of crime,” and waging a “disinformation campaign,” adding that he had opened an investigation into Musk.

Brazilian judge Alexandre de Moraes. (Photo by Mateus Bonomi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Musk quickly bit back, promising to “do a full data dump”—to reveal which accounts the Brazilian government had asked X to ban, once the company gets “employees in Brazil to a safe place.” 

In this standoff, we’re Team Elon. The tech billionaire is shining a light on something few Americans appreciate: that free speech is suffering in Latin America’s largest so-called democracy—and he’s standing up to a man infamous for using authoritarian powers to “protect” it. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who tracks censorship in Brazil, where he lives, explained last January that de Moraes is known to have “almost unilateral, unchecked power to essentially order anyone to be banned from the internet that he wants.”

De Moraes doesn’t limit his animus to far-right influencers. “He’s ordered ten members of Congress to be completely silenced on the internet,” Greenwald wrote in the post, and “forced Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and every other one to remove them, even though they don’t judge them to be violating their terms of service.”

Meanwhile, American outlets have made their anti-Musk bias clear, especially Wired, which ran the headline, “Elon Musk Is Platforming Far-Right Activists in Brazil, Defying Court Order,” without mentioning Brazil’s dismal record on free speech.

That’s not to say Elon’s record on free speech is entirely pristine. He caved to pressure from both the Turkish and Indian governments to ban accounts on X. But how many other billionaires ever put principles before profit?

Musk’s latest post suggests he’s not backing down. He trolled the judge on Monday, topping it with a laughing face emoji: “How did Alexandre de Moraes become the dictator of Brazil?”

Rupa Subramanya is a writer for The Free Press. Read her piece “New Hate Speech Laws Threaten Freedom Across the West,” and follow her on X @rupasubramanya.

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