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Twitter must play by our rules – POLITICO

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Europe has its own message for Elon Musk that it hopes will sink in: He’s about to face some of the world’s toughest online moderation rules and Brussels isn’t going to back down.

Musk, who made headlines by bringing a sink to Twitter HQ as he took over the major social media platform, has European policymakers up in arms, with officials and lawmakers lining up to warn the billionaire that he’ll have to abide by the bloc’s terms and activists leaning on Brussels to review his acquisition.

The Digital Services Act entered the EU’s official rulebook last week and allows authorities to order digital companies to take down illegal content based on EU and national law, and demands that platforms review content flagged by users. 

Musk — who is mostly known as the CEO of electric-car manufacturer Tesla, but now goes by “Chief Twit” in his Twitter bio — has repeatedly said he will abide by local laws, and stressed that no changes were made to Twitter’s current content-moderation policy. 

But Europe is well aware of Musk’s positioning as a “free-speech absolutist.” Whatever Musk is up to with Twitter, his advent as its boss will function as a stress test for the EU’s content-moderation policy: It’s one thing to draw up rules for a safer internet; it’s another to enforce them. 

“We have spoken [about the DSA], we have done it, now we have to apply,” Sandro Gozi, one of the lead lawmakers on new political advertising rules, said Monday. 

Elon’s escapades

Musk has made no secret that he regards Twitter as a “public town square,” where all speech, no matter how divisive or questionable, should be allowed — saying in March that failing to do so could even “undermine democracy.”   

In private texts made public during legal proceedings with Twitter over Musk’s attempts to call off the acquisition, Musk expressed concerns about the EU’s decision to ban Russian state media websites, such as RT, after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. 

“We [SpaceX, Musk’s space company providing satellite internet] have been told to block [RT’s] IP address. Actually, I find their news quite entertaining. Lot of bullshit, but some good points too,” Musk wrote to venture capitalist Antonio Gracias in March 2022. “Free speech matters most when it is someone you hate spouting what you think is bullshit.”

On the other hand, Musk stated in a March tweet that he opposed restrictions on free speech that go “far beyond the law” — in other words, content moderation should stick to the letter of each country’s regulation. In an open letter to Twitter advertisers last week, Musk reiterated that point, adding that the platform will not become a “free-for-all hellscape” and that he aims to make Twitter “warm and welcoming to all” — besides merely being lawful. 

Yet Musk’s frequent social media escapades, ranging from the arch to the outrageous, might give regulators pause.

Just days ago, Musk tweeted out a link to a conspiracy-theory website, suggesting that the October 28 assault of Paul Pelosi, husband of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, was carried out by a male prostitute. On Sunday, when the New York Times reported on Musk’s tweet, the magnate implied that the U.S. newspaper was “false news.”

European compliance

Going forward, scrutiny will shift from Musk’s Twitter antics to the platform’s revamped content-moderation policy — and how it will live up to the bloc’s rules, which will start to roll out gradually in the next few months. 

EU executives and lawmakers involved were quick to make clear that whatever Musk’s approach to content moderation is, it will have to adhere to Europe’s rules. 

“In Europe, the bird will fly by our European rules,” EU industry chief Thierry Breton tweeted — referring to a clip from an earlier meeting with Musk, in which the business tycoon said the EU’s plans were “exactly aligned with my thinking.” The meeting happened in May when the DSA was still far from completion and Musk’s plans to buy Twitter were already known but were about to run into trouble. 

Musk reached out to Breton late last week to once again assure Brussels he will comply with the DSA, an EU official confirmed to POLITICO on Monday, after a prior Reuters report. A new meeting between the two could take place in the coming weeks.

Lawmakers involved echoed Breton’s line over the weekend, well aware that the law, after its publication in the bloc’s Official Journal on Thursday, now faces a crucial next phase: implementing the rules and enforcing them. 

Green MEP Kim van Sparrentak took aim at Musk’s promise to advertisers to show users “highly relevant ads” — referring to a provision in the DSA that rules out targeting users with ads based on certain sensitive data. 

“Musk says he’s buying Twitter out of charity, but at the same time, he wants to keep offering hyper-personalized ads. Fuzz stays part of the business model,” she tweeted — adding that under the DSA, targeting ads based on data like religion or sexual preference is no longer allowed.

Content council

Besides restrictions on targeted advertising, the DSA gives national authorities the ability to order platforms to take down what is illegal under their specific national laws, while also giving users the chance to flag content they suspect of being illegal — which platforms will have to review. 

Musk’s new “content moderation council” — which will have “widely diverse viewpoints,” he said — will have to take all of this into consideration. Twitter’s content-moderation policy also faces some EU deadlines: By February, it needs to disclose the number of its users. Based on the size of its EU user base, it will have to comply with the rules by either summer 2023 or February 2024.

But NGOs are already crying foul far ahead of those deadlines, based on the first media reports of Musk’s Twitter reign, putting pressure on the effective eventual implementation of the DSA. 

In a letter sent to the presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament, 12 NGOs asked for “an urgent security and regulatory review” of Musk’s Twitter takeover — citing the impact on “online standards and safeguards” as one of the reasons to do so. 

“The announcement of major staff cuts, the lifting of account bans and the rejection of content moderation is directly contrary to the letter and spirit of new EU legislation adopted earlier this year that seeks to make big tech companies take greater responsibility for hate speech and disinformation on their platforms,” the NGOs wrote.

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