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In his bid to buy Twitter, Elon Musk says he is a fervent advocate of free speech. And just as he announced he would spend $44 billion to take the social media platform private, the European Union coincidentally finalized its Digital Services Act (DSA), legislation that has its own clearly defined rules on free speech that for the first time also carry serious penalties for illegal or harmful online content.
Though he has yet to clearly state his precise definition of free speech, if Musk believes it includes the right to share false claims or unproven inflammatory content he could run headlong into serious legal and financial penalties – proving the EU is on the right track to rein in the excesses of Big Tech, especially if an important component has been acquired by the richest man in the world.
The landmark DSA legislation, expected to take effect by 2024, says social media and other online companies are liable for fines up to 6 percent of their global revenues if they are found in violation.
In the official announcement of his bid to acquire a controlling interest in the social media company, Musk wrote that “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”.
“I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spambots, and authenticating all humans.”
He appears to have walked back his prior absolutist approach to free speech by saying it must be legal to be allowed. But even that qualifier leaves room for a lot of damaging, and even untrue, statements as protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
Of course, other countries have different rules.
As Musk continued to tweet about free speech, those leading the EU bid to regulate online content also took to Twitter itself to warn him. “Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules — regardless of their shareholding,” tweeted Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner.
“Mr. Musk knows this well. He is familiar with European rules on automotive, and will quickly adapt to the Digital Services Act.”
Breton said he wanted to offer a “reality check” to Musk if he plans less stringent moderation of Twitter content. The EU commissioner said “anyone who wants to benefit from this market will have to fulfill our rules”.
“The (Twitter) board will have to make sure that if it operates in Europe it will have to fulfill obligations including moderation, open algorithms, freedom of speech, transparency in rules, obligations to comply with our own rules for hate speech, revenge porn, harassment,” he added.
“If it does not comply with our law, there are sanctions — 6 per cent of the revenue — and if they continue, banned from operating in Europe.”
The DSA requires Twitter and others to show regulators how they are tackling content such as disinformation, propaganda, and hate speech, part of a bigger, groundbreaking push by the EU to curb the power of large online platforms, also including Facebook and Google.
Breton insists the EU welcomes all online companies despite the regulation. “We are open but on our conditions,” he said. “At least we know what to tell him: ‘Elon, there are rules. You are welcome but these are our rules. It’s not your rules which will apply here’.”
Many are indeed questioning Musk’s intentions. Why would a savvy billionaire make a hostile takeover bid for a company that has only turned a profit in two of the 16 years since it was founded?
Certainly, Twitter punches over its weight in influence. Though its stock has just bumped along and its revenues are vastly inferior to Facebook and Google, Twitter is widely quoted in the media and used by even world leaders to announce policies – in fact that is part of the problem. What happens when a world leader uses Twitter to spread falsehoods?
The current Twitter board and now the EU are in agreement about that. Whatever is shared over such a widely followed medium should be held to standards of truth and fairness, no matter who is sharing it.
Bruce Shapiro, executive director of a program at Columbia University that encourages reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide, told a national radio network in the U.S. that Musk “has a kind of primitive libertarian notion of free speech, which essentially amounts to freedom of the microphone belongs to the person with the loudest voice and the biggest club”.
It is a paradigm “that ends up turning platforms into vehicles for jeering culture wars and indeed suppressing often more reasoned voices”, says Shapiro.
Currently Twitter is closely moderated to battle a bewildering range of abuses by using sanctions that range from a short forced hiatus to a permanent ban. Musk might want to loosen constraints, but the European DSA puts some power behind the push for even better control. It wants to see a debate, not a brawl.
And if Musk’s view of the town square is indeed a battle between those with the loudest voices and biggest sticks, he will find that the EU has all the volume and muscle it needs.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy
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