Free Speech on Twitter? Not If Europe Has a Say

Elon Musk’s “free speech absolutist” version of Twitter is looking more like a platform moderated with a lighter and less-partisan hand than a free-for-all, but even that is too much for critics. Some warn that free speech is dangerous. Others hint that app stores might ban Twitter to spare users from the peril of slightly less-filtered discussion. And our friends across the Atlantic are doing their best to live up to fears of the European Union as a totalitarian project by threatening old-fashioned government censorship.

Twitter “is in the process of reducing moderators, but will have to increase them in Europe,” EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton huffed last week (article in French) about Musk’s new regime at Twitter. “He will have to open his algorithms. We will have control, access, and people will no longer be able to say nonsense.”

Breton pointed to the EU’s new Digital Services Act (DSA) and a companion law addressing digital markets, which give Brussels-based regulators wide-ranging power to regulate internet businesses and, importantly, online speech. He wasn’t alone.

“There are sound reasons to suggest that the standards applied by Twitter until now, may be weakened, at a time when the fight against election interference, misinformation and hate speech is more important than ever,” EU lawmakers Dita Charanzov and Sophie in ‘t Veld wrote to the president of the European Parliament on Nov. 8.

The centrist legislators asked for Elon Musk to be summoned to a hearing to “remind Musk of his obligations under EU law and the 2022 Code of Practice on Disinformation.” The European Parliament is poised to grant that request, reports Musk isn’t technically obligated to attend, but the EU has powerful legal weapons with which to torment those who defy official whims.

Chief among those weapons is the above-mentioned and recently enacted Digital Services Act, which threatens hefty fines of up to six percent of global turnover and even outright bans on platforms that don’t toe the line. Eurocrats peddle the legislation as a safeguard, but the law’s strict rules for speech and harsh penalties for failure to promptly remove “unacceptable” content are nothing of the sort.

“The DSA does not strike the right balance between countering genuine online harms and safeguarding free speech,” Jacob Mchangama, executive director of Copenhagen-based human-rights think tank Justitia, warned in April. “It will most likely result in a shrinking space for online expression, as social media companies are incentivized to delete massive amounts of perfectly legal content.”

The DSA “gives way too much power to government agencies to flag and remove potentially illegal content and to uncover data about anonymous speakers,” agrees the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

All this huffing, puffing, and threatening of legal penalties comes in response to the new owner of a social media company who might describe himself as a “free speech absolutist” but also says he’ll allow greater, but not completely unmoderated, range for discussions.

“New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach,” Musk tweeted last week. “Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter.”

That’s the policy that has eurocrats so hot and bothereda promise to broaden boundaries for discussion, but to make unpleasant speech unprofitable and difficult to find. To American sensibilities, that’s a rather tepid commitment to free speech.

“It’s your company, so you’re free to enact any policy you like,” former Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Libertarian, responded to Musk. “But free speech includes speech that challenges and sometimes offends others. That’s how people grow. Making ‘negative’ tweets harder to find hurts this process, and there’s no way this policy can be applied evenly.”

Well, many Americans find this version of free speech unimpressive; some are of a more European bent.

“For a free speech absolutist to take control of a platform like Twitter, where so many people spend their time and when there’s where there’s a lot of debate going on, this is not just about, you know, allowing a free speech free-for-all. This is about eventually silencing marginalized voices,” fretted Nina Jankowicz, who briefly threatened to head a federal Disinformation Governance Board before the project was scrapped. “That free speech free-for-all is going to mean less speech for marginalized groups.”

Jankowicz described the horrors of being publicly criticized over her interrupted government job, so perhaps she considers political appointees “marginalized.” She is certainly no fan of unfettered speech.

At Fast Company, Clint Rainey wistfully speculated that “if Musk’s laissez-faire approach to moderation ends up putting Twitter at odds with developer policies on the major app stores, Musk’s platforming of hateful content could get Twitter itself deplatformed.”

Once again, a policy of somewhat lighter moderation is characterized as free rein for nastiness, with a hint that tech companies might do what is forbidden to the U.S. government by the First Amendment. In fact, Europe’s restrictive rules may ensure exactly that. It’s easier for global businesses to apply Europe’s regulations everywhere than to vary policies by country. Platforms like Twitter risk the wrath of EU regulators when speech inevitably bleeds across digital borders.

“The Brussels Effect entails that the EU does not need to impose its standards coercively on anyonemarket forces alone are often sufficient to convert the EU standard into the global standard as multinational companies voluntarily extend the EU rule to govern their global operations,” wrote Columbia Law School’s Anu Bradford, author of The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World (2019).

That’s unfortunate, because the international trend is towards greater censorship via rules imposed by places like Europe.

“Free speech has been on global decline for more than a decade,” Denmark’s Justitia notes while announcing a conference on the future of free speech for December in Copenhagen. “Even in open societies, the democratization and virality of online speech are increasingly seen as a threat rather than a precondition for well-functioning, free, tolerant and pluralist societies.”

Whatever Elon Musk’s ultimate plans for Twitter, EU officials seem determined to ensure that a free speech conference held on their turf will be a downbeat affair, and to nudge the global environment for exchanging information and ideas in a decidedly restrictive direction.



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