Elon Musk buying Twitter. What could possibly go wrong?
A new chapter of the surveillance capitalism saga happened just three days after the EU members adopted the final agreement on the Digital Services Act (DSA). The board of directors of Twitter accepted Elon Musk’s offer to buy the company for USD 44 billion. The deal is not closed yet, and now the ball is in Twitter’s shareholders to accept or reject the offer. This news has grabbed the media's attention worldwide and opened public discussions on how this would affect not only the features of Twitter but also freedom of speech in the digital sphere.
Musk’s ideas on Twitter as a “free-speech absolutist”
Elon Musk has already given some hints about his vision for Twitter’s future. He has self-proclaimed as a “free-speech absolutist”. Under his idea of freedom of expression, no content would ever be required to be taken off line, regardless of its legality or how it sustains systemic risks for democracy or people.
Just on Wednesday, 27 April, he publicly mocked Twitter’s content moderation rules. And particularly, he criticised Vijaya Gadde, the Policy, Legal and Trust Lead of the company, responsible for prohibiting political ads on the platform and banning Donald Trump’s Twitter account for violating their policies against inciting violence in the 6 January 2021 insurrection at Washington D.C. He also expressed the need to be “very cautious with permanent bans” and favoured “timeouts” or suspensions instead of expulsions from social media. This has raised the question of whether Donald Trump should be allowed to tweet again despite his sanction.
In a TED interview, Musk advocated for Twitter to have an open-source algorithm “to increase trust” and “defeat spambots”. He also raised the question of whether all Twitter users should be identified. Finally, he advocated for secure communications when he said that “Twitter‘s direct messages should have end-to-end encryption like Signal”.
Content moderation vs. absolute freedom of expression
Freedom of expression is not an absolute right under international human rights law. EDRi member Article 19 has clearly shown how hate speech, online abuse and disinformation in fact reduced the overall enjoyment of freedom of expression. Amnesty International has raised the questions of hate speech and violent and abusive speech against women of colour on Twitter. These are barriers to safe participation in public debates by marginalised groups.
But any restriction to online content should be legal, proportionate and legitimate. Reinforcing power concentration, self-regulation or arbitrariness in content moderation practices online is not the way to protect freedom of expression.
The DSA/DMA package just adopted in Europe can provide a much-needed impetus to promote a fair, open and just internet for all. Thanks to the DSA, platforms dealing with content moderation in Europe will be legally obliged to consider the overall balance of fundamental rights and systemic harms such as illegal online hate speech. The DSA will introduce obligations to analyse systemic risks such as disinformation or deceptive content and carry out risk reductions. The DSA timid steps to reform the online advertising industry will also hopefully support the promotion of toxic content.
Anonymity is fundamental for freedom of expression
Another important element is anonymity on Twitter. Anonymity is a fundamental right and a shield for the exercise of other human rights like freedom of expression or assembly. That’s why we believe it is an excellent idea to move forward with end-to-end encryption in DMs. The “authenticate all humans” policy poses a direct threat to human rights defenders, journalists and activists that work in repressive contexts and use Twitter to struggle against autocrats. Several United Nations statements have advocated that authentication systems might create a chilling effect on freedom of expression. Just as EDRi’s Senior Policy Advisor Jan Penfrat highlighted: “taking away anonymity or pseudonyms from people, including society’s most marginalised, was the dream of every autocrat”.
Power without Law is mere force
The richest man in the world controlling the world’s online “public square” only reinforces the tendency of a more centralised internet. Today’s internet is far removed from the decentralised and diverse internet of the early days. This level of concentration of power, money and personal data only jeopardises democracies and the exercise of online fundamental rights. Almost 400 million people around the world would not only be under Musk’s (mis)conception of freedom of expression on Twitter but also he will be the owner of a massive volume of personal data. This raises important points about how this may affect advertising, potential conflicts of interests, media independence and media pluralism: would we be targeted by Tesla ads on Twitter? How Musk‘s relations with China would affect Twitter policies on freedom of expression and its algorithms? What if Elon Musk would run for the presidency of the United States? What would happen with all Twitter efforts to reduce hatred discourses on its platforms? Are we going to see again political ads on Twitter? At least in Europe, some of these challenges could be addressed by the DSA like algorithmic transparency rules and the new political ads regulation, but this may not be enough in light of Musk’s takeover of Twitter.
To counterbalance this concentration of power, conducting an independent human rights impact assessment as part of the due diligence before the acquisition is a good idea. Due diligence based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights could help to prevent, mitigate and account for human rights violations where Twitter is involved. Having a clear picture of what is the current human rights situation on Twitter is crucial prior to initiating policy changes. As EDRi member Access Now proposed, embedding an independent human rights chair and committee could also create an internal counter-power to this concentration of data and power in the hands of one single man.
Ironically, Elon Musk’s record on different topics related to freedom of expression contradicts his own words. He is not very kind to the free speech of his workers when it comes down to criticising his company or trying to form a union. He asked China to censor Tesla-related criticism. To protect the freedom of expression of everybody online – not just the most privileged – we need strong and enforced regulation and accountability.