Elon Musk sacking Twitter’s entire Brussels office puts him on collision course with EU laws

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Elon Musk’s plans to turn Twitter Inc. into a haven for free speech could run into his biggest political hurdles in the European Union, where he has to deal with his new Digital Services Law, which forces companies to remove illegal content.

Musk said he will comply with national laws, specifically assuring concerned EU officials that he will comply with the DSA, but this will be difficult in practice with so understaffed content left to moderate. It will not be easier in EU law brussels capitalwhere the Twitter office is now lifeless.

EU leaders know that Musk himself was a controversial speaker on Twitter: he was brought to court for libel after he called a British spelunker a “fart boy” (Musk won), the US SEC sued him by tweets about taking Tesla Inc. private (Musk resolved), he tweeted a Nazi meme (he later deleted it), and aware Misinformation about an attack on the husband of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (also deleted).

While most, if not all of these would not have violated the DSA, it certainly made lawmakers vigilant about the possibility that they were signs of things to come.

What new rules must Twitter follow in Europe?

One rule requires platforms like Twitter to remove content that is illegal in any of the EU bloc’s member states. For example, content promoting Nazism would have to be removed in Germany, where such speech is illegal. But it wouldn’t have to be shot down across the border in Denmark, where it isn’t. Another rule is that platforms like Twitter must show the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, that it is doing an adequate job of slowing down the spread of content that does not break the law, but may be considered harmful. This would include misinformation. Companies will have to show how they are tackling these kinds of posts this summer. If the EU concludes that not enough is being implemented, this second rule gives them the power to demand changes to algorithms or policy, for example.

What other rules must Twitter follow in Europe?

Musk will have to follow the EU’s historic data protection rules, the GDPR, which requires Twitter to have a data protection officer in the EU. It also means that Twitter must obtain consent before targeting ads to specific user groups and holds Twitter accountable for any data breaches. Musk will have to keep an eye on other laws in the pipeline, such as the EU AI Law. The current proposal bans the use of algorithms that have been shown to discriminate against people, which could affect Twitter’s face-cropping tools that have been shown to favor thin, young women. The EU’s child sexual abuse materials proposal could force Twitter to filter private messages for images of child sexual abuse or grooming. These are still being discussed in the EU.

How will EU regulators enforce the rules?

In extreme cases, they could ban Twitter from operating on the block. In more modest scenarios, they could authorize raids on your remaining offices to see if you’re doing what you say you’re doing, and use what they discover to force stronger changes in behavior. And in more likely starting situations, they would issue strongly worded lawsuits, fines, and threaten further action.

These are options open to all companies subject to Brussels law, including Meta Platforms Inc., Alphabet Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others. However, Musk’s stance on free speech and his dismissal of some half of Twitter employees have already put it in the crosshairs of regulators. Twitter will have to do a lot more work to comply with the DSA, including adding a mechanism for users to easily flag illegal content and having enough moderators to review content in each EU country. The EU has not been afraid of taking on big US tech companies in the past. Ireland’s data protection watchdog fined Twitter €450,000 ($448,360) in 2020 for violating the GDPR. Amazon.com Inc., Meta’s WhatsApp and Alphabet’s Google have been hit with millions of euros in fines, though critics argue these token fines do little to change Big Tech’s behavior as companies see them as a cost of do business in Europe.

When could action be taken?

As far as the DSA is concerned, there is no time soon. Twitter will have to publish the number of users it has in February, which kicks off the fee monitoring process, but won’t have to submit a risk assessment until next summer. Instead, Musk’s first chance to show the EU he’s serious about content is to champion the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation. Twitter signed the code this summer, vowing not to profit from misinformation and to fight fake accounts and bot-driven amplification. While the code is voluntary, it’s obviously not a good idea if Musk goes back on the promise or violates it right away.

Ireland’s supervisor has said it is “closely” monitoring Musk’s movements. After the departure of Twitter’s sole chief privacy officer, the company assured Ireland’s data watchdog that it was complying with the GDPR and would have someone in charge of the data in the meantime. The biggest risk might be having too few staff to protect the platform from attacks that expose user data.

Is the EU the only place Musk should worry about?

The US Supreme Court will hear two cases that could hold social media companies liable for algorithms that promote illegal or harmful content. This could drastically change the way content is moderated by US companies. Meanwhile, Twitter has sued India over a new law that essentially gives the government control to censor social media posts. It’s not clear if this goes against Musk’s free speech ideas enough to continue with the lawsuit or if he will simply adhere to the law.

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