Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter might run into a major hurdle: the European Union.
The continent’s regulations have been a headache for Silicon Valley for years, and Musk — a so-called “free speech absolutist” — could soon feel the pain.
Hours after Elon Musk tweeted that he had “freed” the bird, a reference to Twitter’s logo, the European Commission’s Internal Markets Commissioner Thierry Breton warned that in Europe “the bird will fly by” the EU’s content moderation rules.
The EU’s Digital Services Act, which officially became law this month, gives the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, unprecedented powers to police tech platforms by requiring them to remove illegal content ranging from terrorist propaganda to ads for unsafe toys.
Breton already warned Musk in the spring that his free-speech approach would have to follow the DSA. “I don’t care what he’s doing outside of Europe,” Breton told Bloomberg Television in April. “You want to enter into Europe? These are our rules.”
The EU has never shied from policing Big Tech. Violating the union’s landmark data protection rules, the General Data Protection Regulation, already resulted in a €450,000 ($448,360) fine for Twitter back in 2020, while Amazon.com Inc., Meta Platforms Inc.’s WhatsApp and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have been slapped with fines in the tens of millions of euros.
Soon, the commission will have even more power to police Big Tech. The Digital Markets Act will force tech companies designated as “gatekeepers” to abide by new antitrust rules. But the biggest problem for Musk will be its sister legislation, the DSA.
The main goal of the legislation is to ensure companies do better at finding and removing illegal content, but what counts as illegal can differ significantly between the EU’s 27 countries. Musk’s Twitter, like all social media companies, will have to be diligent about removing illegal content regardless of the country it was posted from, or face fines of up to 6% of their global annual turnover. If Twitter repeatedly breaks the rules, the company could be barred from operating in the union entirely.
Content moderation has always been tricky for tech companies, which rely on a mix of algorithms and human monitoring to take down content. Currently Twitter has roughly 1,500 people doing content moderation compared to an estimated 15,000 at Meta and 10,000 for Google’s products, according to research from New York University. Experts say these numbers are not enough to properly police social media content.
Musk at one point planned to cut 75% of Twitter’s staff, according to documents seen by the Washington Post. Although he’s walked back on such high figures, any plans to strip the company of content moderators will likely make it even harder to stay on top of illegal posts in EU countries, let alone the rest of the world.
The EU’s DSA will also force companies to moderate content in the languages they operate in. On Friday, Musk announced he wants to create a content moderation council with “diverse viewpoints” but if he reduces headcount in Twitter’s human content moderation team, the company could rely more on automated systems. However these systems tend to struggle to determine the context of posts and have a history of making high-profile mistakes.
While the EU’s tech regulation approach might seem to clash extensively with Musk’s love of unfettered free speech, there are many points on which the two align. The DSA forces companies to make their algorithms more transparent and requires them to have consistent rules about banning people from the platform.
Following the January 6 attack, it was EU leaders including Breton and former German chancellor Angela Merkel who were vocal against Twitter and Facebook’s unlimited bans on former President Donald Trump, a stance Musk agrees with. Getting rid of lifetime bans creates the potential for high-profile people who were blocked, such as Steve Bannon, to return to the platform.
This kind of alignment was on display when Breton visited Musk in Texas in May. At the time, Breton told Bloomberg the two had “no disagreement” on their approach to content. Musk said in a viral video post that “I agree with everything you said, really,” talking to Breton. “I think we’re very much on the same line.”
That relationship could change as the commission starts to take action against harmful but not illegal content: for example, algorithms that surface eating disorder content. The DSA gives the commission powers to ask companies to carry out risk assessments focused on specific types of harmful material and, if sufficient controls aren’t put in place, force them to downrank it.
This is where Musk and Breton’s approaches might differ. In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU took a far more interventionist approach than the US by banning Russian media sites RT and Sputnik in an effort to crack down on misinformation. Musk was explicitly against banning the news sites. BQ Prime