Musk, who describes himself as a “free speech absolutist”, pledged to buy Twitter for $44 billion this week, with European Union officials and digital activists quick to say that any focus on free speech at the expense of online safety would not fly after the 27-nation bloc cemented its status as a global leader in the effort to harness the power of tech giants.
“If his approach is to ‘just stop moderating’, he will likely end up in a lot of legal trouble in the EU,” said Jan Penfrat, senior policy adviser at digital rights group EDRi.
Musk will soon face the EU’s Digital Services Act, which will force big tech companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook parent Meta to more strictly monitor their platforms or face billions in fines.
Officials agreed just days ago on the landmark legislation, which is expected to come into force by 2024. It’s unclear how soon it could trigger a similar crackdown elsewhere, with U.S. lawmakers divided over efforts to tackle competition, online privacy, misinformation, etc.
That means the task of reining in a Musk-led Twitter could fall to Europe — something officials have signaled they are ready for.
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“Whether it’s cars or social media, any company operating in Europe must comply with our rules – whatever their involvement,” Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, tweeted on Tuesday. “Mr. Musk knows this well. He is familiar with European automotive rules and will adapt quickly to the Digital Services Act.”
Musk’s plans for Twitter haven’t been fleshed out beyond a few ideas for new features, opening up his algorithm to public inspection and beating “bots” posing as real users.
French digital minister Cédric O said Musk has “some interesting things” he wants to push for Twitter, “but let’s remember that #DigitalServicesAct – and therefore the obligation to fight misinformation, hate in line, etc. – will apply regardless of the ideology of its owner.”
European Green Party lawmaker Alexandra Geese, who helped negotiate the law, said: “Elon Musk’s idea of freedom of speech without moderation of content would exclude a large part of the population from speech. public,” such as women and people of color.
Twitter declined to comment. Musk tweeted that “the extreme antibody reaction from those fearful of free speech speaks volumes.” He added that by freedom of expression he means “that which corresponds to the law” and that he is against censorship going “far beyond the law”.
The UK also has an online safety law in the works that threatens senior tech company executives with jail if they don’t comply. Users would have more power to block anonymous trolls and tech companies would be forced to proactively remove illegal content.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office has stressed the need for Twitter to remain “accountable” and to protect users.
“Regardless of ownership, all social media platforms must be accountable,” Johnson spokesman Max Blain said Tuesday.
Damian Collins, a British lawmaker who led a parliamentary committee working on the bill, said if Musk is serious about making Twitter a haven for free speech, “he’ll have to clean up the digital city square.”
Collins said Twitter has become a place where users are drowned out by coordinated armies of “bot” accounts spreading misinformation and division and users refrain from speaking out “because of the hate and abuse ‘they will receive’.
UK and EU laws target such abuse. Under the EU’s Digital Services Act, tech companies must have systems in place to easily flag illegal content for prompt removal.
Experts said Twitter will need to go beyond removing clearly defined illegal content like hate speech, terrorism and child sexual abuse and tackle material that falls into a gray area.
The law requires major tech platforms to conduct annual risk assessments to determine the extent to which their products and design choices contribute to the dissemination of controversial material that may affect issues such as health or public debate.
“It’s about measuring to what extent your users see, for example, Russian propaganda in the context of the war in Ukraine”, online harassment or misinformation about COVID-19, Mathias said. Vermeulen, director of public policy at data protection agency AWO.
Violations would result in fines of up to 6% of a company’s worldwide annual revenue. Repeat offenders can be banned from the EU.
The Digital Services Act also forces tech companies to be more transparent by giving regulators and researchers access to data about how their systems recommend content to users.
Musk has similar thoughts, saying his plans include “making algorithms open source to increase trust.”
Penfrat said it was a great idea that could pave the way for a new ecosystem of rating and recommendation options.
But he brushed aside another Musk idea – “authenticate all humans” – saying removing anonymity or pseudonyms from people, including the most marginalized in society, was every autocrat’s dream.