Elon Musk gives Europe’s speech platform rules the thumbs up

While the world continues to wonder what ‘free speech absolutist‘ and gadfly billionaire Elon Musk might mean for the future of Twitter, the European Union has chalked up an early PR win in the long game of platform regulation — extracting agreement from the Tesla founder that its freshly rebooted approach toward content policy sounds like good shiz.

EU internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, paid a visit to the would-be Twitter owner, Musk, yesterday for a meeting at his gigafactory in Austin, Texas, where we’re told regulation of online speech was a key discussion topic, alongside “mutual interest” supply chain chat.

Breton was keen to introduce Musk to the newly agreed Digital Services Act (DSA), which will come into force across the bloc in the coming years — likely in early 2023 for larger platforms such as Twitter — with the aim of harmonizing content governance rules and dialing up consumer protections. Breaches of the regulation, meanwhile, can attract fines of up to 6% of global annual turnover.

Asked whether the newly agreed regulation fits with his planned approach for Twitter, Musk responded: “I think it’s exactly aligned with my thinking.”

“It’s been a great discussion,” Musk also said in the brief Q&A with Breton. “I agree with everything you said really. I think we’re very much of the same mind. And I think anything that my companies can do that would be beneficial to Europe, we want to do that. That’s what I’m saying.”

“On social media, they had a constructive exchange on the impact of the recently adopted EU Digital Services Act on online platforms in areas such as freedom of speech, algorithm transparency, or user responsibility,” a spokesman for Breton’s office also told us — pointing to a “short video” summary which was promptly posted to Twitter, post-meeting, where Musk can be heard making the aforementioned remarks.

“Great meeting!” he also tweeted afterward. “We are very much on the same page.”

Setting aside the awkward body language between Musk and Breton (defensive versus obsequious), it remains to be seen whether the former might have the last (hollow) laugh — should it turn out he’s inadvertently highlighted a major hole in the bloc’s plan.

In recent weeks, since news of Musk’a $44 billion bid to buy Twitter broke, he’s suggested his rule of thumb for moderating speech on the social media platform will cleave to local laws that require the removal of illegal speech — but leave pretty much everything else up.

Which could mean he’ll happily open the floodgates to toxic abuse and mindless conspiracy theories — aka ‘legal but harmful speech.’

Europe’s grand plan for modernizing platform rules, meanwhile, essentially sidesteps this fuzzier (controversial) area of legal but harmful speech in favor of fixing hard-and-fast rules to harmonize speedy takedowns of strictly illegal stuff (e.g., CSAM; copyright infringement; hate speech in certain markets; another EU regulation that’s due to start applying this year also targets terrorist content with a one-hour takedown rule).

So it’s perhaps no wonder that Musk came away from the meeting with the EU commissioner professing their approaches align — assuming Breton’s core message was that the rules focus on illegal speech.

Confirmation bias is a helluva a drug!

That said, EU lawmakers do have a number of (softer) mechanisms in the pipe to tackle fuzzier content problems such as disinformation — and to set transparency rules around political ads. So it may be that Musk hasn’t fully grokked all the ways the bloc intends to pressure platform providers not to spread other types of toxic and/or harmful content.

If he succeeds in buying Twitter, one thing is clear: Musk will be fielding many more requests for meetings from lawmakers at home and abroad. And if he chooses to pull out the speech stops, and let toxic abuse and damaging disinformation rip, he’ll quickly find a lot of those requests turning into hard and fast demands.