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Elon Musk’s Twitter to face free-speech battles with regulators, activists

Elon Musk has pledged to make Twitter a bastion of free speech and crack down on spam bots, but government regulators and watchdogs claim he has yet to answer key questions about his plans. 

On Tuesday evening, the self-described “free speech absolutist” took to Twitter to lay out his vision for the site after winning the company’s approval for his $44 billion buyout bid.

“By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law,” Musk wrote. “If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.” 

Musk also took a jab at Twitter’s top lawyer — who reportedly cried during an all-hands meeting about Musk’s takeover — over the site’s suspension of The Post’s Twitter account following its reporting on Hunter Biden. 

“Suspending the Twitter account of a major news organization for publishing a truthful story was obviously incredibly inappropriate,” Musk wrote on Tuesday. 

‘Elon, there are rules’

While Musk’s vision for Twitter includes stripping back content moderation rules and stopping censorship of news organizations, he still faces serious potential pushback from regulators — including a top European Union commissioner who threatened a possible ban on Tuesday. 

“Elon, there are rules,” European Union internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said.
Corbis via Getty Images

“Elon, there are rules,” European Union internal market commissioner Thierry Breton told the Financial Times. “You are welcome but these are our rules. It’s not your rules which will apply here.”

Breton’s comments came days after the EU passed a sweeping bill called the Digital Services Act, which will require sites to more strictly monitor material about pandemics, wars, natural disasters and other emergencies that governments deem to be “disinformation”. It will also require them to take a harder line against what governments deem to be hate speech and harassment. 

If Twitter or any other social media site fails to comply with the rules, the EU has the power to fine them up to 6% of their revenue — or even ban them from operating in Europe altogether. 

“If [Twitter] does not comply with our law, there are sanctions,” Breton said. “Anyone who wants to benefit from this market will have to fulfill our rules. The board [of Twitter] will have to make sure that if it operates in Europe it will have to fulfill the obligations, including moderation, open algorithms, freedom of speech, transparency in rules, obligations to comply with our own rules for hate speech, revenge porn [and] harassment.”

The EU’s new regulations, which are similar to proposals under consideration in the US and UK, add even more complication to an already-thorny global patchwork of online speech rules. 

For example, a Twitter user in the US who posted a picture of a Nazi swastika wouldn’t be violating any American laws — but could be convicted in Germany. And a tweet from a journalist calling Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a “war” would be legal in most of the world but carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison in Russia, where the government has sought to restrict Twitter but the company has pledged to keep operating.

Musk will have to figure out how to live up to his promise of making Twitter, as he put it, a “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated” without running afoul of governments.

Anonymity questions 

Another part of Musk’s vision for Twitter involves cracking down on spam accounts and bots. 

“If our Twitter bid succeeds, we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!” he tweeted earlier in April, adding that he would “authenticate all real humans” as an effort to crack down on spam. 

Twitter HQ
“If our Twitter bid succeeds, we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!” Elon Musk said.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

While verifying people would certainly reduce the prevalence of bots, human rights groups have argued for years that allowing users to use anonymous and pseudonymous accounts helps free speech from dissidents and journalists in countries with repressive laws. 

“Any free speech advocate (as Musk appears to view himself) willing to require users to submit ID to access a platform is likely unaware of the crucial importance of pseudonymity and anonymity,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said on Monday. “Requiring users to submit identification to prove that they’re ‘real’ goes against the company’s ethos.” 

Even if Twitter doesn’t require users to display their real names on their profiles, repressive governments could force the companies to unmask people posting on the site, the group warned. 

“Governments in particular may be able to force Twitter and other services to disclose the true identities of users, and in many global legal systems, do so without sufficient respect for human rights,” the EFF said. 

China has required social media users to register using their real names for years — a step critics say has helped the country’s political leaders repress political dissent. Russia has considered taking similar steps

Human Rights Watch condemned the practice in 2015, writing that online anonymity and message encryption “often offer the only safe way for people in repressive environments to express themselves freely.” 


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