If Elon Musk does buy Twitter, free speech absolutism will not be enough

The writer is international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center

After weeks of speculation about the putative new owner’s style and impact, it is now unclear whether Elon Musk will actually end up buying Twitter. After announcing a $44bn bid, he subsequently complained about the number of fake accounts on the social media platform and said the deal would not “move forward” until Twitter provided satisfactory data on the scale of the problem.

However things play out, the lull allows for everyone excited or worried about the prospect of the richest man on Earth owning a powerful online platform to take stock. Musk has certainly been having a lot of fun tweeting about what he would do if he takes charge of the social medium of choice for politicians, journalists and activists. Yet jocular tweets will not make the difficult choices involved in curating online speech disappear. Musk may benefit from catching up on some of the lessons we have already learnt about platform governance.

He promised to run Twitter like a “free speech absolutist”, including by handing back Donald Trump’s account, his megaphone. He then went on to state: “By free speech, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.”

This is where he will run into trouble and the need to make trade-offs. The two statements are clearly contradictory. Most Twitter users are not Americans living under the protection of the first amendment.

Globally, many laws seek to restrict freedom of expression, or at least spell out the conditions in which free speech may be limited. Governments, both democratic and non-democratic, are seeking more legal control over what is and is not acceptable to say and share online. We see strongly restrictive laws in autocracies such as Saudi Arabia. In Iran and Myanmar, access to the platform is blocked. And last year, Twitter lost a complex legal battle in India about liability for illegal content posted by users.

Ironically, by announcing he will respect domestic law rather than universal human rights principles, Musk will end up supporting the suppression or restriction of a whole lot of speech in many corners of the world.

In the US, keeping a variety of users interested and feeling welcome on Twitter is likely to involve going beyond minimal legal speech requirements. The spread of conspiracy theories, racially discriminating practices or foreign interference with the democratic process have all caused widely-recognised harms. Protecting democratic and civil rights, public safety and health has prompted social media platforms to restrict hateful, deceptive but formally legal speech. It turns out, perhaps, that what works for human rights also ends up being good for business.

The EU has recently formalised such requirements and agreed on a new law, the Digital Services Act. It clarifies the responsibility of platform companies such as Twitter when it comes to dealing with harmful speech. Transparency and accountability are strengthened to deal with anything from the sale of illegal goods to the hiding of crucial data from academic researchers.

The provisions in the law are also a reminder that governing social media platforms involves more than addressing speech issues alone. Given the size of the EU as a market, the DSA is likely to inspire corporate behaviour beyond the bloc.

In an awkward video, Musk and EU commissioner Thierry Breton said they agreed on the merits of the new European rules. One thing is for sure, however: the DSA is not intended to ensure free speech absolutism.

Last weekend, American and European leaders met for the transatlantic Trade and Technology Council in Paris. Last month they signed a Declaration for the Future of the Internet, which essentially commits them to governing it more democratically.

Defending the basic principle of freedom of expression is one thing; dealing with the many questions involved in retaining the trust of a large group of diverse users on a social media platform is quite another. Simply asserting that speech will be protected does not begin to answer any number of neuralgic questions about how exactly that should be done online.

Legislators in many democratic countries have moved beyond the false dichotomy of free speech absolutism versus top-down control over expression. Now Musk, or indeed any other future owner of a social media company, is well advised to catch up.

Video: Elon Musk talks to the FT about Twitter, Tesla and Trump

Source: Financial Times