Government & Policy

Europe schools Elon Musk that Twitter’s wings are already clipped


Photo illustration of Elon Musk on the social network Twitter.
Image Credits: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket / Getty Images

And so the it begins… Elon Musk has only been owner of Twitter for a few hours but he’s already earned himself a schooling from the European Union in response to his suggestive “the bird is freed” tweet.

(For those not obsessively online, Musk means “freed” as in speech, and “bird” as in Twitter.)

The European Commission’s internet market commissioner, Thierry Breton — who is fairly obsessively online himself — quickly tweeted back at Musk, offering a passive-aggressive emoji wave greeting, following by a further punch: “In Europe, the bird will fly by our [EU flag emoji] rules. #DSA”

DSA is a reference to the Digital Services Act — aka, the bloc’s newly minted reboot of ecommerce and digital services rules which intends to drive accountability on Internet businesses by laying out governance expectations for how they handle societal risks like illegal speech.

So Breton is warning Musk that his platform must abide by European rules — ergo the bird’s freedom is relative.

The EU commissioner has also brought receipts: Linking to his earlier trip to see Musk when he extracted an awkward ‘thumbs up’ from the Tesla CEO for Europe’s approach to digital regulation.

“That’s what he said,” wrote Breton in a pithy reminder now.

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

The immediate fear for Twitter users — and a watchful concern for European regulators — is that Musk’s ownership of the modest-sized speech platform (which nonetheless punches far above its weight in political and media influence terms) will usher in a new era of toxicity for global discourse if he tosses out a civilized rulebook and opts to let all speech rip on Twitter, giving a free pass for hateful and abusive tweets to flow, supercharging divisive and damaging conspiracy theories and being a friend to violence-inciting bullies everywhere (Musk has signalled he’d give Donald Trump his Twitter bully-pulpit back, for instance).

This is not an academic fear. Musk has already sacked a number of senior execs including former Twitter CEO, Parag Agrawal, and former head of legal policy, trust and safety Vijaya Gadde, per reports.

Gadde’s sacking is particularly concerning as it could signal the start of an intentional ripping out of internal checks and balances and a dismantling of Twitter’s whole painstakingly constructed approach to trust and safety — which took years to build up and dig the platform out of the worst depths/totally toxic swamp enabled by earlier Twitter leaders having a hopelessly reductive philosophy of ‘the tweets must flow’.

The risk, therefore, is of Twitter being set back at nazi ground zero double quick.

The shitposting billionaire that’s now in charge of the platform also recently joked (?) about sacking 75% of Twitter staff, before claiming to have rowed back on that particular slash and burn plan. (‘Worst boss ever: Lolz! Just kidding!’)

But it’s anyone’s guess what Musk will actually do now he has his hands on Twitter’s steering wheel. (And mass sackings would certainly be one way to indirectly dismantle vital content checks and balances by starving the community-minded function of the necessary resource to keep the most toxic speech in check.)

But, well, like everything that Musk touches, it’s complicated.

Prior to the deal closing, he not only gave the EU’s rules an apparent thumbs up (assuming he had the vaguest idea what he was actually agreeing with) — he also claimed he would respect all legal requirements, vis-a-vis speech on Twitter, everywhere around the world.

It’s a claim that’s extremely complicated in itself as it suggests his ‘freeing of the bird’ could also require him to (at least) region-lock the bird in sound-proof cages if — for e.g. — an autocratic regime demands he censor specific expressions of political dissent and can undemocratically pass a law requiring same…

One thing is clear: Musk’s freedom to do what he likes with Twitter is already relative and will only shrink from here on in as hard realities (and the potential for hefty fines) bite the bird.

A spokesman for Breton declined to comment on whether the Commission has concerns that Musk’s Twitter will breach the DSA when the regulation starts applying from next year. However an EU source expressed confidence that, in Europe at least, Musk’s wings are already as good as clipped.

“With the EU Digital Services Act, the time of big online platforms behaving like they are ‘too big to care’ is coming to an end. The DSA sets clear, harmonised obligations for platforms – proportionate to size, impact and risk,” the source told us.

“Europe is open — but on our conditions. Anyone who wants to benefit from the European market will have to fulfil our rules, including on moderation, open algorithms, freedom of speech, transparency, hate speech, revenge porn and harassment.

“The Commission will supervise very large platforms, including the possibility to impose effective and dissuasive sanctions of up to 6% of global turnover or even a ban on operating in the EU single market in case of repeated serious breaches.”

For more on Musk’s international regulatory challenges, check out our earlier report.

Will Elon Musk put Twitter on a collision course with global speech regulators?

Read more about Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter on TechCrunch

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