World's richest person Elon Musk's acquisition of social media giant Twitter and his expected plans for a more hands-off approach to content moderation could clash with new European Union laws that are meant to protect users from disinformation, hate speech, and other harmful material.
Musk has earlier described himself as a "free speech absolutist" and has made free speech central to his plans for Twitter. But the absolutist approach could lead to a tussle with EU norms.
Musk will soon be confronted with Europe's Digital Services Act, which will require big tech companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook-parent Meta to police their platforms more strictly or face billions in fines.
Jan Penfrat, senior policy adviser at digital rights group EDRi, said, "If his approach will be just stop moderating it, he will likely find himself in a lot of legal trouble in the EU."
The act will come into effect in 2024, which was approved just last week.
Thierry Breton, the EU's internal market commissioner, said on Tuesday, "Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules — regardless of their shareholding. Mr Musk knows this well. He is familiar with European rules on automotive and will quickly adapt to the Digital Services Act.”
What are Musk's plans for Twitter?
Elon Musk has hinted his plans for Twitter in earlier tweets and in a statement in the press release that announced Twitter's purchase agreement.
Musk was quoted as saying in the press release, "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 spam bots, and authenticating all humans."
Eearlier, Musk hinted in a tweet that he is also interested in introducing an edit button that a section of users have demanded for a long time.
How is Musk's vision likely to clash with EU?
This is mostly freedom versus regulation for public good debate. While people prefer free speech, it is feared that an absolutist approach would make abusive content free as well. While authenticating users would remove abusive trolls, it would also make the platform inaccessible to those who use Twitter secretively, either because of oppressive regimes or workplace or familial restrictions.
EU Green Party lawmaker Alexandra Geese, who was involved in negotiating the law, said, “Elon Musk's idea of free speech without content moderation would exclude large parts of the population from public discourse.” Gees was referring to people such such as women and people of colour.
France's digital minister, Cedric O, said Musk has "interesting things" that he wants to push for Twitter, “but let's remember that #DigitalServicesAct — and therefore the obligation to fight misinformation, online hate, etc — will apply regardless of the ideology of its owner".
In an apparent response to these concerns, Musk on Wednesday that his idea of free speech only extends to what's allowed by law.
He said, "By 'free speech', I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law."
By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2022
I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.
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.
UK Too Has Proposed An Online Safety Law
The United Kingdom also has an online safety law in the works that threatens senior managers at tech companies with prison if they don't comply. Users would get more power to block anonymous trolls and tech companies would be forced to proactively take down illegal content.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's office stressed the need for Twitter to remain “responsible" and protect users.
“Regardless of ownership, all social media platforms must be responsible,” Johnson's spokesman Max Blain said on Tuesday.
Damian Collins, a British lawmaker who led a parliamentary committee working on the bill, said that if Musk really wants to make Twitter a free speech haven, “he will need to clean up the digital town square".
Collins said Twitter has become a place where users are drowned out by coordinated armies of “bot" accounts spreading disinformation and division and that users refrain from expressing themselves “because of the hate and abuse they will receive”.
The laws of EU and UK in detail
The laws in the UK and EU target such abuse. Under the EU's Digital Services Act, tech companies must put in place systems so illegal content can be easily flagged for swift removal.
Experts said Twitter will have to go beyond taking down clearly defined illegal content like hate speech, terrorism and child sexual abuse and grapple with material that falls into a gray zone.
The law includes requirements for big tech platforms to carry out annual risk assessments to determine how much their products and design choices contribute to the spread of divisive material that can affect issues like health or public debate.
This is all about assessing to what extent your users are seeing, for example, Russian propaganda in the context of the Ukraine war, online harassment or COVID-19 misinformation, according to Mathias Vermeulen, public policy director at data rights agency AWO.
Violations would incur fines of up to 6 per cent of a company's global annual revenue. Repeat offenders can be banned from the EU.
The Digital Services Act also requires tech companies to be more transparent by giving regulators and researchers access to data on how their systems recommend content to users.
Musk has similar thoughts, saying his plans include “making the algorithms open source to increase trust”.
Penfrat said it's a great idea that could pave the way to a new ecosystem of ranking and recommendation options. But he panned another Musk idea — “authenticating all humans” — saying that taking away anonymity or pseudonyms from people, including society's most marginalised, was the dream of every autocrat.
(With AP inputs)