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‘Elon, there are rules’: Regulators and lawmakers mull the free speech fallout of Musk’s Twitter takeover

April 26, 2022, 3:59 PM UTC

Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover will, thanks to its $44 billion girth, be examined by antitrust regulators⁠—who are unlikely to have much of a problem with it, as the Tesla/SpaceX/Boring chief is no social media mogul. But that doesn’t mean Musk won’t find himself laden with regulatory problems.

The big issue for a Musk-led Twitter will be around content moderation and the protection of its users—a hot topic for regulators and lawmakers in places like the European Union and Australia, and increasingly in the U.S. too.

Although his companies have a track record that suggests otherwise, Musk puts himself forward as a “free-speech absolutist” and announced the Twitter deal by declaring 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.”

However, just this past weekend, EU lawmakers reached a political agreement on a bill called the Digital Services Act (DSA), which will force the likes of Twitter to be more proactive about removing illegal material such as hate speech and give users easier ways to flag harmful content for removal. It will also allow officials to impose a sort of state of emergency on Big Tech in circumstances when security or public health are at risk, such as the current war between Russia and Ukraine. In an emergency state, the European Commission could force platforms to remove disinformation-spreading accounts, for example.

“[Europe] welcome[s] everyone. We are open but on our conditions. 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,'” warned Thierry Breton, a member of the European Commission who played a key role in designing the DSA, on Tuesday.

“If [Twitter] does not comply with our law, there are sanctions: 6% of the revenue and, if they continue, banned from operating in Europe,” Breton told the Financial Times.

Breton also weighed in on speculation that a Musk-led Twitter could allow banned individuals, such as former U.S. President Donald Trump, back onto the platform. “We will have very clear, very precise, very democratic, very readable rules for deciding on bans,” he said. “With us, banishment will obviously be possible, in certain cases necessary, but under democratic control.” The EU took no official stance on Twitter’s exile of Trump, but in general, the bloc is uncomfortable with platforms taking such actions unilaterally and would prefer if governments enacted bans.

In Australia, a new law called the Online Safety Act allows regulators to crack down on online platforms such as Twitter if they don’t remove illegal and restricted online content when it is flagged. “Restricted” content in this case means material that isn’t illegal but is deemed unsuitable for children, for example. The U.K. is planning something similar.

Australian eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant, who is in charge of enforcing that country’s scheme, reacted cautiously to the news of Twitter’s purchase by Musk, who has previously said he would ban only illegal content from the platform.

“While the implications of this takeover remain to be seen, we will be keeping a close watch and making sure that Twitter and other platforms are taking the steps required under Australian law to address online safety issues,” Inman Grant told the publication InnovationAus.com.

“One thing that is clear is that the entire technology industry needs to lift its game when it comes to safety standards and protecting their users from harms. Trust and safety and moderation are very complex areas and require more than just artificial intelligence to manage,” she said.

In the U.S., the most high-profile Capitol Hill reaction came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), who last month cosponsored an antitrust reform bill that would raise hurdles for major corporate mergers.

“[Musk’s Twitter buy is] dangerous because one billionaire decides how millions of people will have an opportunity to communicate with each other,” the progressive Democrat told reporters Monday evening. “Concentration of power means less competition, and ultimately means just one or a handful of people are deciding who talks, who gets heard, and who gets shut down.”

However, in a country where Twitter’s content moderation policies have long been a talking point in a deeply polarized national political debate, the other side is happier with what it sees. “It’s a great day for free speech in America,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) tweeted in reaction to the takeover news.

The final word should perhaps go to the British government minister Zac Goldsmith, who quipped: “With @elonmusk in charge, I really worry that Twitter might cease being a place of reason, balance, and calm reflection.”

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