The Price of Freedom of Speech: Why Elon Musk’s $44 Billion Vision for Twitter Could Fall Apart | Elon Musk

Twitter’s warning to Elon Musk contained 95 pages of legal jargon and was clear: don’t use your considerable power on the social media platform to attack the company.

The world’s richest man and Twitter court owner signed a deal last week for the planned $44 billion (£35 billion) acquisition, confirming that he will be allowed to tweet about the deal as long as “such tweets do not affect the company or any of its representatives”.

But hours later, the self-proclaimed “absolute free speech” was engaged in tweets criticizing senior Twitter staff, including an interaction with a political podcast host who had labeled the company’s legal head, Vijaya Gadde, as Twitter’s “top-notch.” censorship lawyer”.

Vijaya Gadde, legal head of Twitter
Vijaya Gadde, the legal head of Twitter, was the victim of an attack sparked by a Musk tweet. Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters

The inevitable result for Gadde was one of social media’s grittier phenomena: a pile-on. Comments included calls to lose her job and, in a typical example of obnoxious digital hyperbole, statements that Gadde would “go down in history as a terrible person”.

Musk announced the deal to buy Twitter last week, saying, “Freedom of speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital city square where matters vital to the future of humanity are discussed.” Musk has a history of controversial tweets, but his post in Gadde sparked concern in some quarters about the idea of ​​free speech by the Tesla CEO. Will this be at the expense of protecting Twitter users from abuse, cyberbullying and extremist content?

“I think Musk’s view of free speech is both contradictory and foolish,” said Jillian York, a free speech activist and the author of Silicon values: the future of free speech under surveillance capitalism† “The absolutism on a platform like Twitter does not take into account the very real damage that Twitter can cause as a global platform, for example used by malicious actors like ISIS and right-wing extremists.” She adds that there is a difference between the idea of ​​free speech as embodied by being on a platform at Speakers’ Corner in London and online, where you can “shout to billions of people into the void”. She says, “Platforms like Twitter are a completely different animal and you’re talking about someone’s ability to ruin someone’s life in an instant.”

Gadde’s post sparked a wave of support and criticism of Musk from current and former employees. A group of female Twitter employees, led by @TwitterWomen, posted “the women on Twitter are the best of us,” while the platform’s former CEO, Dick Costolo, accused the billionaire of “making an executive at the company you just bought target of harassment and threats”.

There is also speculation that Musk will allow banned figures back on the platform, including former President Donald Trump, who has denied wanting to return after his account was permanently suspended in January 2021. Nevertheless, The Wall Street Journal reported this weekend that Musk is “stunned” that Trump remains banned. The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a U.S.-British campaign group, has said the reinstatement of the likes of Trump, far-right pundit Katie Hopkins and InfoWars founder Alex Jones would mean that Twitter’s safety rules “do not exist anymore”.

The deal, which is backed by the board of directors but must be approved by shareholders, has also raised concerns about one person running such a large platform. Twitter is important, although the majority of its 217 million daily users get their news from elsewhere. In Europe, only 9% of people use Twitter for news, rising to 12% in North America, 14% in the UK and 35% in Africa, according to the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ). . But the people who use Twitter are the political and media equivalent of influencers: journalists, commentators, celebrities and politicians.

“The fact that many politicians, powerful individuals and pundits are frequent users, and that some journalists mention what they say in their coverage, means that Twitter is clearly an important part of how the political and media agenda is set,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the RISJ. “In that sense, a wealthy business magnate who owns it raises the same kind of problems as wealthy individuals who control influential news media or other social media platforms. It is a political question as to how individual countries intend to regulate such property.”

A yellow and green tram passing through the street in front of an imposing old office building with '@twitter' vertically past a sign on the corner
Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco. Photo: Amy Osborne/AFP/Getty Images

The deal is not expected to be investigated by US competition authorities, but politicians are beginning to address the issue of internet regulation and the associated issues with free speech. Monument laws are being introduced in the UK and the EU that will have a direct impact on the shape of Musk’s town square.

In another tweet following an agreement last week, Musk acknowledged that individual states’ understanding of free speech would trump his own. He wrote: “By ‘freedom of speech’ I simply mean that which is in accordance with the law. I am against censorship that goes way beyond the law.” But the law – in the UK and the EU – is about to change.

In the UK, the government is introducing the Online Safety Act, which imposes a duty of care on technology companies to protect users from harmful content. Some of the content it covers has already been banned by Twitter, especially posts containing things that are criminal in the offline world, such as terrorist content or child sexual abuse. But it also requires major platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok to deal with “legal but harmful” content — in other words, posts that fall below the crime threshold but can still cause psychological or physical harm. This has alarmed free speech advocates (York calls it “dystopian”), but Musk will have to abide by it — Britain’s communications regulator Ofcom can fine companies up to 10% or their turnover for violations of the law.

“Services operating in the UK are subject to UK regulations. Online platforms are no different from services in other sectors. Once passed, Twitter will need to convince Ofcom that they are meeting its obligations to protect users,” said Maeve Walsh, a policy advisor who helped shape the regulatory framework behind the bill.

At the same time, the EU is implementing the Digital Services Act (DSA), which requires major social media platforms to do more to tackle illegal content. This includes forcing them to allow users to flag such content in an “easy and effective way” so that it can be removed quickly. “Twitter, even owned by Mr. Musk, must moderate content to comply with EU rules. If he wants to do business in the EU, that’s a fact,” said Christel Schaldemose, a Danish MEP and chief negotiator for the DSA.

In the US, content moderation has been a hot topic among lawmakers for years. While there is some bipartisan support for reforms, the topic of how and whether platforms should be held accountable for content published on their sites remains controversial.

By “freedom of speech” I simply mean that which conforms to the law.

I am against censorship that goes way beyond the law.

If people want less freedom of speech, they will ask the government to pass laws to that effect.

Therefore, to ignore the law is contrary to the will of the people.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) Apr 26, 2022

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 currently exempts platforms from responsibility for content posted by others. Both Trump and President Joe Biden have expressed support for Section 230 reform, albeit for different reasons. Republicans have argued, largely without evidence, that right-wing votes are censored, while Democrats say platforms host harmful content, misinformation and misinformation with no consequence.

But campaigners say reforming or repealing Section 230 could do more harm than good: It could drive companies to remove large portions of posts, even if they aren’t harmful, for fear of breaking the law — perhaps in the process where oppressed groups are one of their most powerful platforms.

“Section 230 is a fundamental law for human rights and free speech worldwide,” said Evan Greer, director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future. “Regardless of what Musk chooses to do, changing Section 230 would make it even more difficult for platforms like Twitter to moderate harmful content through a human rights framework, and more likely platforms would remove large chunks of legitimate content to avoid lawsuits.”

Also included in the deal to buy Twitter is a $1 billion break fee, which can be paid by either party depending on the circumstances in which the deal falls apart. As it becomes increasingly clear that implementing his free speech vision faces significant hurdles, Musk may view it as a fee worth paying.

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