European regulation of online speech will be a speed bump for the new owner of Twitter.
After a complicated, winding, and tense standoff between Musk and the Twitter board, as well as a pending legal trial at a Delaware Chancery Court, the eccentric billionaire finally agreed to abide by his original agreement and purchase Twitter in its entirety. Elon Musk is now the sole owner and CEO of Twitter. In typical Musk style, he wandered into Twitter headquarters carrying a sink, to “let that sink in.”
Musk has repeatedly expressed his disapproval of Twitter’s heavy-handed and politically inflected moderation policies, and has insisted on various occasions that Twitter ought to become an open and inclusive “digital town square,” where citizens of diverse political persuasions can exchange opinions freely. In a recent tweet aimed at advertisers, Musk said:
The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence. There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society.
The notion of a “common digital square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner,” is the very opposite of Twitter today. Right now, Twitter is essentially a “safe space” to express Woke, leftist, pro-lockdown, and pro-Big Pharma opinions, and a very dangerous place for anyone who wanders from the fold of left progressivism or says something that could potentially endanger Big Pharma’s profits.
Twitter has been shamelessly suppressing inconvenient truths, if they happen to run against Twitter’s version of reality, in which Covid vaccines are about as safe as paracetamol, male and female biology are an assault on citizens’ rights to “gender identity,” and Big Pharma CEOs are altruistic saviours of humanity.
If this were just a silly game, the suppression of one side of the debate would be annoying, but no big deal. However, it is a game in which the stakes are extremely high. As things stand, Twitter is arguably the most important digital forum in the world, so suppressing important medical information concerning issues like vaccine harms and potential Covid treatments may literally be a matter of life and death.
The question is, can and will Elon really “free the bird,” as he so colourfully put it himself? Recently, in a query from Jordan Peterson’s daughter, Mikhaila concerning whether he can get her Dad back on Twitter, he has indicated that “anyone suspended for minor & dubious reasons will be freed from Twitter jail.” In a separate tweet, Musk has indicated that “Twitter will be forming a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints. No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes.”
— Mikhaila Peterson (@MikhailaFuller) October 28, 2022
It is true that Musk has, in the past, backtracked on important statements, including his original offer to purchase Twitter. But his stance in favour of free speech has been quite consistent, so I see no reason to doubt that he sincerely intends to “free the bird” from the heavily biased, politicised, and frankly Orwellian censorship policies it has been weighed down by for the past few years. Not to mention that it may be very good business to welcome non-lefties and non-Covideans back onto the platform.
If Musk manages to follow through on his free speech dream, then we could see the release of thousands of people from permanent Twitter “jail” over the coming months, including yours truly (Twitter handle @davidjthunder), as well as a radical revamping of Twitter’s anti-scientific and politically partisan moderation policies, which have served, principally, to protect certain scientists, politicians, and corporations from serious public scrutiny and challenge.
But dreaming is one thing, implementing another. Even if Musk manages to pull off the Solomonic task of keeping advertisers, investors, and customers more or less happy with his new moderation policies, he will also have to contend with governments that are increasingly enthusiastic about using their legislative and regulatory powers to shut down speech they object to.
I wish I could say that it only private actors like Microsoft and Google that suppress free speech. But it turns out that many of the people who currently stand at the helm of our governments, most notably in the European Union, seem to be determined to “protect” the public from what they happen to deem “dangerous or harmful” speech.
The aggressive regulation of speech by governments may come in the shape of notoriously malleable “hate speech” laws, which inevitably end up criminalising speech that is disagreeable to this or that political tribe, or “misinformation” laws that require people to only express opinions on matters of medicine and science that certain powerful actors in the political, pharmaceutical, and scientific establishment approve of.
It is worth noting that as soon as Musk announced that the “bird is freed,” Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, replied, “in Europe, the bird will fly by our rules.” He was referring to increasing efforts by the European Commission to clamp down on what they perceive as “misinformation” and to potentially impose enormous fines on Big Tech platforms that do not live up to the EU’s expectations concerning the regulation of “misinformation.”
— Thierry Breton (@ThierryBreton) October 28, 2022
Twitter is one of the 37 signatories of the 2022 Code of Practice on Disinformation promoted by the European Commission, which includes a set of commitments which appear from the official website to rely heavily on self-regulation, even though the Commission monitors compliance with the code. Even if this code of practice is difficult to police in practice, it provides a political tool to pressure Big Tech companies into doing the Commission’s bidding.
What is especially worrying is the Digital Services Act, which was passed into law by the European Parliament on 5th July 2022. The Digital Services Act, as reported by Ecommerce Europe,
aims to set an ambitious framework to guarantee a safe and trustworthy online environment for consumers, mainly by introducing new obligations for digital service providers. Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs), designated as ‘online platforms which reach a number of average monthly active recipients of the service in the Union equal to or higher than 45 million’, will have to comply with stricter rules, enforced by the Commission.
According to Thierry Breton, one of the Act’s most fervent advocates, one of the features of the Digital Services Act is that it introduces “a harmonised system to fight ALL forms of #illegal content – from counterfeit or dangerous products to hate speech. Any national authority will be able to request that illegal content is removed, regardless of where the platform is established in Europe.”
— Thierry Breton (@ThierryBreton) April 22, 2022
Breton goes so far as to suggest that the European Union could impose steep financial and regulatory sanctions for non-compliance: “The DSA imposes effective and dissuasive #sanctions. From #fines for breaches of obligations of up to 6% of global turnover to a #ban on operating in the EU single market in case of repeated serious breaches.” Don’t ask me if any of this would withstand judicial scrutiny. But the threat of massive fines and bans for non-compliance is coming from the highest level of the European Union, so I imagine Mr Breton has thought through the legal ramifications of these threats, and is not just bluffing.
🔟 A possible mechanism of #emergency response in the event of a crisis⚡️
We cannot rely solely on platforms’ goodwill when facing crises, pandemics or wars.
Europe needs a legal tool to require large digital players to react quickly in case of emergency.#DSA
— Thierry Breton (@ThierryBreton) April 22, 2022
To cut a long story short, if the laws of any given jurisdiction become an instrument of tyranny and Groupthink, Mr Musk will be put in a tough spot, and might find himself under enormous pressure to back away from his free speech commitments. That would feel like a terrible betrayal of his declared mission of creating an inclusive “digital town square.”
On the other hand, if Elon Musk is willing to fight the Eurocrats, he might be able to win some legal battles for free speech. Undoubtedly, the European Commission is flexing its muscles in the hopes of intimidating Musk into compliance. But if Musk cares about free speech as much as he says he does, he might just dig in and put the legality of the Commission’s threats to the test in a court of law.
All of this assumes, of course, that we can take Musk at face value in his fighting words on behalf of free speech. Only time will tell if that is true. But there aren’t too many glimmers of hope in the world of Big Tech and free speech these days, so I’ll take whatever breadcrumbs of hope I can pick up along the way.
David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society. More by David Thunder
EDITORS NOTE: This MercatorNet column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.