What Elon Musk’s Twitter ‘freedom of speech’ promises is missed

Thursday morning, Elon Musk offered to buy Twitter to save free speech.

“I invested in Twitter because I believe in its potential to be the platform for freedom of expression across the globe, and I believe that freedom of expression is a societal requirement for a functioning democracy,” wrote the Tesla and SpaceX billionaire – as recently acquired a 9.2 per cent. share in Twitter – in an archive. “But since I made my investment, I now realize that the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.”

It is not clear how this game will play out, but there is also a more fundamental question: what does Elon Musk think freedom of speech is, and who is threatening it? Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of an open society, and with governments around the world looking at the suppression of Internet platforms, there is a complicated interplay between different visions of what should be allowed online. But despite his sweeping statement, Musk’s eye seems almost exclusively focused on the much smaller question of Twitter’s own internal rules.

In 2011, Twitter’s former CEO Dick Costolo claimed that Twitter belonged to the “freedom of speech wing of the free speech party”, a phrase that has been hailed by critics of the platform’s moderation calls ever since. In the context of that era, controversies over free speech mostly involved Twitter’s relationships with governments. The platform was praised for allowing activists to organize under the threat of political repression in Egypt and other countries. Costolo boasted of his fight with the U.S. government over account data related to WikiLeaks, which was under investigation after leaking diplomatic cables.

In a TED interview with Chris Anderson on Thursday, Musk’s concerns were more hazy – and directed almost exclusively at Twitter itself. Musk did not show much appetite for fighting global speech restrictions – noting that “in my opinion, Twitter should match the country’s laws.” Instead, he raised the ghost of tweets that were “mysteriously promoted and degraded” by Twitter’s sorting algorithm, which Musk says should be made public. (Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has also envisioned a version with more transparent algorithmic recommendations.)

“It’s just really important that people have the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law,” Musk told Anderson. “In general, I think the civilizational risk diminishes the more we can increase trust in Twitter as a public platform.”

Musk reflected a common assumption that Twitter is a “town square” that has become the primary judge of what people can say. But governments around the world still have a huge influence on what is being said and how. In the years since Costolo’s comment, the laws of online speech have grown. Several countries have adopted “fake news” rules that (in theory) are supposed to crack down on the spread of fake online information, and some have threatened to ban platforms that do not comply with them. European privacy rules introduced a “right to be forgotten” that requires platforms to remove embarrassing information posted online in certain circumstances. India implemented a strict legal system for social media companies that required local offices to designate government affiliates and at one point raided Twitter’s offices.

Even inside the United States, which has some of the world’s most permissible speech laws, Twitter’s moderators are not the only force at work. The platform has some of the loosest standards around adult content for a larger social network, but the FOSTA-SESTA Act of 2018 threatens corporate legal protection if they allow content related to sex work. U.S. copyright law has a significant exception to the normal rules that protect platforms from legal liability, which has encouraged Twitter to do things like remove stolen jokes. The way companies like Twitter interpret those kinds of rules has a huge impact on users’ livelihoods and creative freedoms.

Large technological platforms do not just do reply to laws in the United States; they also play a role in lobbying for new ones. Jack Dorsey appeared before Congress several times during his tenure as CEO, where he was asked questions such as how lawmakers should change section 230, one of the key pillars of online speech. Musk has not indicated what role a recently private Twitter may play in these debates, and it is not clear he is interested. We also do not know how Musk’s version of Twitter would interact with other digital gatekeepers. If Apple demanded that it cut off access to NSFW content through its iOS app, for example – something it’s pressured Discord and other services to do – would Twitter play ball?

Far from being better equipped to protect free speech, a Musk-owned Twitter may be in a weaker position than a publicly owned one. Musk’s involvement in several other industries – including telecommunications with Starlink, space travel with SpaceX and cars with Tesla – would give regulators and politicians an extra lever to push Twitter with. This form of leverage has already been a powerful weapon against highly vertically integrated companies like Apple, which have complied with Chinese requests for censorship and surveillance to avoid losing access to a massive market for their hardware. Musk’s companies have the added wrinkle that they often involve public contracts and subsidies – the kind of deal that a high-profile moderation struggle could jeopardize.

Twitter’s stance was never as absolutist as Costolo’s comment suggested. Even while he and other employees still used the term, the French and German rules complied with hate speech by “withholding” neo-Nazi or anti-Semitic positions in these countries. The company promised it would try apply the rules “narrow and transparent,” but “we have to comply with the laws of the countries in which we operate,” Costolo acknowledged after a French court ordered it to block hateful tweets. If you want to make money as a global business, there is a limit to how many laws you can consistently disregard – there is a reason why many tools to avoid censorship are open source and non-commercial.

But Costolo at least acknowledged that Twitter was engaging in a much larger world. My colleague Liz Lopatto, meanwhile, has appropriately framed Musk’s takeover plans as a virtuoso Twitter troll trying to hold power over his favorite toy. And there is only one enemy that a troll really fears: mods.

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