The British parliament has invited Elon Musk to “discuss the future of Twitter” because we live in deeply wild times.
If Musk agrees to speak to parliamentarians on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee — even virtually — he will be going further than Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who (in)famously snubbed repeat calls to testify before it in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data abuse scandal back in 2018.
Unlike Zuckerberg, who was seeking to evade scrutiny of how exactly Facebook came to allow a firm some of its own staff had dubbed “sketchy” suck up data on millions of users without their knowledge or consent, Musk has no obvious reason to avoid a chinwag with a few of the U.K. parliament’s ‘honorable members’ — besides his general distain for government institutions.
He may also (currently) be too busy trolling owners of NFTs to notice or care about an “invitation to speak” to parliamentarians of a country on the other side of the Atlantic.
But he probably should take up the invite — because it’s a sign of things to come if he succeeds in his mission to own Twitter.
As we reported earlier, there is a growing patchwork of international regulations that already and/or will soon apply to the speech platform. So if Musk become Twitter’s owner, he will be on the hook for decisions that could result in the company being fined substantially for failing to comply with regional/per market rules on content such platforms can legally carry.
Rules that could even see local execs doing prison time for compliance failures in the case of the U.K.’s incoming Online Safety legislation.
In its letter of invitation to Musk which the DCMS committee made public today, it writes that it’s especially interested in his proposal to “authenticate all humans.”
“My committee has noted your proposed acquisition of Twitter and we are interested in the developments you propose,” writes committee chair and MP Julian Knight. “In particular, your intention to roll out verification for all users echoes our calls on the U.K. government as part of proposed legislation, which we hope will restore the U.K. public’s trust in digital platforms.”
Knight goes on to note a 2020 report by the committee on misinformation during the COVID-19 “infodemic” which called for “greater transparency of bots and automated and spam accounts,” as well as referencing its more recent report on the Online Safety Bill — which “discussed ways to balance civil liberties like freedom of expression with the need to tackle pernicious, pervasive online child sexual exploitation and abuse,” as he puts it.
“I therefore wish to take this opportunity to invite you to speak before our committee and discuss your proposals in more depth,” Knight goes on, before suggesting Musk use the British parliament’s public platform to troll his critics (er … careful what you wish for!) — as he writes: “I know you have expressed your wish that critics remain on Twitter and this may present an opportunity to address any critiques in public.”
Critics of the U.K. government’s Online Safety Bill, meanwhile, have long been concerned the government could be leaning toward limiting social media anonymity — in a claimed bid to quash trolling and abuse on online platforms.
However the government unveiled a compromise approach earlier this year that would require the largest platforms to provide users with tools to limit how much (potentially) harmful but technically legal content they get exposed to by offering ways for them to verify their identity and control who can interact with them on the service (e.g., by selecting an option to only receive DMs and replies from verified accounts).
“The onus will be on the platforms to decide which methods to use to fulfil this identity verification duty but they must give users the option to opt in or out,” DCMS wrote in February of the partial authentication addition to what critics already dub a ‘kitchen sink’ bill.
If the government holds to that, the U.K. will avoid a controversial blanket verification requirement mandate for platforms like Twitter — akin to Musk’s “authenticating all humans” idea — although the Online Safety Bill is still undergoing parliamentary scrutiny so there could be further amendments before it becomes law. (And the DCMS committee, at least, appears keen on moar authentication.)
A lot could still happen to change the detail of the incoming legislation. But it’s strange to think that new ownership at a major platform like Twitter could reset the social media speech dial in an even more radical direction than that proposed by the U.K. government — i.e., if Musk really means to force all Twitter account holders through identity verification.
If he does intend that, it could mean the worst of all worlds: An ill-thought-through speech chilling intervention by Musk, which fails to value privacy nor understand the relative risks for users of being forced to trust a third party to (at best) safeguard their identity, combined with the growing mass of restrictions being applied to speech platforms by states and political institutions around the world, some (technically) democratic, others (totally) autocratic, which are tending to take a narrower view on what’s legal to express online.