Elon Musk buying Twitter has set him up for a scuffle with the EU

Billionaire Elon Musk wants to promote free speech on Twitter, but the European Union’s Digital Services Act could see the bloc calling the shots

Technology | Analysis 26 April 2022

Elon Musk's Twitter account

Elon Musk is a prolific tweeter

Chesnot/Getty Images

Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, may have to wrestle with the European Union over who gets to regulate his latest toy.

Musk announced his $44 billion purchase of Twitter on 25 April, saying that “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”.

But while digital town squares have long been the prevail of big tech firms, the balance has shifted in recent months with governments attempting to gain more control over social media.

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On 23 April, two days before Musk landed his Twitter deal, the European Union agreed its Digital Services Act (DSA), which will grant it the right to police how platforms moderate content, halt the spread of disinformation, and keep users safe. If platforms don’t conform, it could open them up to bans or sanctions of up to 6 per cent of their global turnover. Twitter’s 2021 revenue was $5.08 billion, meaning Musk would have to hand over up to $304.8 million if fined.

Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, has already indicated that the bloc is prepared to enforce its regulations. “Elon, there are rules,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times today.

“I expect that Musk will find that European understandings of freedom of expression are more nuanced than the more absolutist position that many take in the US and that he seems to subscribe to,” says Jennifer Cobbe at the University of Cambridge.

Not everyone agrees, though. “Potentially, Elon Musk’s Twitter and the changes he’s said he’d like to see are more aligned with what’s in the DSA than Twitter’s current business plans,” says Max Beverton-Palmer at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Musk has previously said he intends to make Twitter’s recommendation algorithm open-sourced, which would allow users to better understand why they are presented with particular content. “That’s a provision in the DSA,” he says.

If Musk wants Twitter to continue operating in the EU, he will have to decide whether to obey the new provisions of the DSA globally, or to only apply them in EU countries. Previous EU legislation, such as the General Data Protection Regulation, has become de facto global law as platform holders apply them to all users.

In that case, the DSA could let Musk allow the return of people who have previously been banned. Many observers have already taken Musk’s calls for increased free speech as an indication that he would welcome back users who have kicked off the site for reasons such as inciting violence, including former US president Donald Trump, who has set up his own social network, Truth Social. The DSA demands that users are allowed to challenge a platform’s moderation decisions, providing a legal mechanism for ostracised users to reactive their accounts.

Or perhaps Musk will just ignore the EU. “His posturing on free speech and removing censorship comes across as completely childish and naïve,” says Jean Burgess at Queensland University of Technology, Australia. “At the same time, I have no doubt that he will choose to defy all kinds of norms and regulations if he thinks he can get away with it.”

However, Beverton-Palmer points out that Musk already runs businesses in highly regulated markets, including automobiles (with Tesla), drilling (The Boring Company, which plans to bore tunnels underground for mass public transportation) and space (through SpaceX). “There’s a lot more alignment there with the regulatory superstructure the EU has created than you may initially think,” he says.

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