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US committee releases sealed Brazil court orders to Musk's X, shedding light on account suspensions

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A U.S. congressional committee released confidential Brazilian court orders to suspend accounts on the social media platform X, offering a glimpse into decisions that have spurred complaints of alleged censorship from the company and its billionaire owner Elon Musk.

The Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee late Wednesday published a staff report disclosing dozens of decisions by Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes ordering X to suspend or remove around 150 user profiles from its platform in recent years.

The 541-page report is the product of committee subpoenas directed at X. In his orders, de Moraes had prohibited X from making them public.

“To comply with its obligations under U.S. law, X Corp. has responded to the Committee,” the company said in a statement on X on April 15.

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The disclosure comes amid a battle Musk has waged against de Moraes.

Musk, a self-proclaimed free-speech absolutist, had vowed to publish de Moraes’ orders, which he equated to censorship. His crusade has been cheered on by supporters of far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro, who allege they are being targeted by political persecution, and have found common cause with their ideological allies in the U.S.

De Moraes has overseen a five-year probe of so-called “digital militias,” who allegedly spread defamatory fake news and threats to Supreme Court justices. The investigation expanded to include those inciting demonstrations across the country, seeking to overturn Bolsonaro’s 2022 election loss. Those protests culminated in the Jan. 8 uprising in Brazil’s capital, with Bolsonaro supporters storming government buildings, including the Supreme Court, in an attempt to oust President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from office.

De Moraes’ critics claim he has abused his powers and shouldn’t be allowed to unilaterally ban social media accounts, including those of democratically elected legislators. But most legal experts see his brash tactics as legally sound and furthermore justified by extraordinary circumstances of democracy imperiled. They note his decisions have been either upheld by his fellow justices or gone unchallenged.

The secret orders disclosed by the congressional committee had been issued both by Brazil’s Supreme Court and its top electoral court, over which de Moraes currently presides.

The press office of the Supreme Court declined to comment on the potential ramifications of their release when contacted by The Associated Press.

“Musk is indeed a very innovative businessman; he innovated with electric cars, he innovated with rockets and now he invented a new form of non-compliance of a court order, through an intermediary,” said Carlos Affonso, director of the nonprofit Institute of Technology and Society. “He said he would reveal the documents and he found someone to do this for him.”

Affonso, also a professor of civil rights at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said that the orders are legal but do merit debate, given users were not informed why their accounts were suspended and whether the action was taken by the platform or at the behest of a court. The orders to X included in the report rarely provide justification, either.

The Supreme Court's press office said in a statement Thursday afternoon that the orders do not contain justifications, but said the company and people with suspended accounts can gain access by requesting the decisions from the court.

While Musk has repeatedly decried de Moraes’ orders as suppressing “free speech” principles and amounting to “aggressive censorship,” the company under his ownership has bowed to government requests from around the world.

Last year, for instance, X blocked posts critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, in February, it blocked accounts and posts in India at the behest of the country’s government.

“The Indian government has issued executive orders requiring X to act on specific accounts and posts, subject to potential penalties including significant fines and imprisonment,” X's global affairs account posted on Feb. 21. “In compliance with the orders, we will withhold these accounts and posts in India alone; however, we disagree with these actions and maintain that freedom of expression should extend to these posts.”

Brazil is a key market for X and other social media platforms. About 40 million Brazilians, or about 18% of the population, access X at least once per month, according to market research group eMarketer.

X has followed suspension orders under threat of hefty fines. De Moraes typically required compliance within two hours, and established a daily fine of 100,000-reais ($20,000) for noncompliance.

It isn’t clear whether the 150 suspended accounts represent the entirety of those de Moraes ordered suspended. Until the committee report, it wasn’t known whether the total was a handful, a few dozen or more. Some of the suspended accounts in the report have since been reactivated.

On April 6, Musk took to X to challenge de Moraes, questioning why he was “demanding so much censorship in Brazil”. The following day, the tech mogul said he would cease to comply with court orders to block accounts — and that de Moraes should either resign or be impeached. Predicting that X could be shut down in Brazil, he instructed Brazilians to use a VPN to retain their access.

De Moraes swiftly included Musk in the ongoing investigation of digital militias, and launched a separate investigation into whether Musk engaged in obstruction, criminal organization and incitement. On April 13, X's legal representative in Brazil wrote to de Moraes that it will comply with all court orders, according to the letter, seen by the AP.

Affonso said the committee’s release of de Moraes’ orders were aimed less at Brazil than at the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden. The report cites Brazil “as a stark warning to Americans about the threats posed by government censorship here at home.”

Terms like “censorship” and “free speech” have turned into political rallying cries for U.S. conservatives since at least the 2016 presidential election, frustrated at seeing right-leaning commentators and high-profile Republican officials booted off Facebook and Twitter in its pre-Musk version for violating rules.

“The reason why the far-right needs him (Musk) is because they need a platform, they need a place to promote themselves. And Elon Musk needs far-right politicians because they will keep his platform protected from regulations,” said David Nemer, a Brazil native and University of Virginia professor who studies social media.

In the U.S., free speech is a constitutional right that’s much more permissive than in other countries, including Brazil. Still, the report's release seemed to invigorate Bolsonaro and his far-right supporters.

Late Wednesday, soon after the court orders were released, Bolsonaro capped off a speech at a public event by calling for a round of applause for Musk.

His audience eagerly complied.

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AP writer Barbara Ortutay contributed from San Francisco

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Follow AP’s coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean at https://apnews.com/hub/latin-america

Julia Carneiro, The Associated Press