EU warns Twitter to take more action against illegal content as new rules take effect

EU officials have warned that the social media platform Twitter must comply with new content rules as concerns are being raised that hate speech will increase on the platform under the future ownership of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

On Tuesday, Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, reminded the Tesla chief executive that he would have to comply with the newly agreed Digital Services Act, which requires online platforms to tackle illegal content including as hate speech.

“Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules – regardless of their shareholding,” tweeted Breton. “Mr. Musk knows this well. He is familiar with European rules on automotive and will quickly adapt to the Digital Services Act.” Breton tweeted.

Breton’s tweet was backed by European Commission Vice President for Transparency Věra Jourová who wrote that “Twitter is an important space for European public debate. Under any ownership, it will have to respect EU laws: DSA, GDPR, etc.” Adding “our fight against disinformation must continue. We expect more transparency and responsibility by design and commitment to revised anti-disinfo Code.”

The EU’s timely agreement on the Digital Services Act

Elon Musk struck a $44bn (€41.2bn) deal to acquire Twitter just a few days after the European Commission reached an agreement on Saturday on landmark legislation that would force big companies such as Twitter, Google, Facebook (Meta), YouTube and other internet services to combat misinformation, disclose how their services amplify divisive content and stop targeted online advertising based on a person’s ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

The new rules, called the Digital Services Act (DSA), are intended to address social media’s societal harms by requiring tech companies to police their platforms more aggressively for illicit content or risk billions of dollars in fines.

Under these rules, companies will be required to set up new policies and procedures to remove flagged hate speech, terrorist propaganda, and other material defined as illegal by countries within the European Union. E-commerce marketplaces like Amazon must also prevent sales of illegal goods.

The DSA also includes measures that will require tech giants to be more transparent about the algorithms they use to recommend content to users as well as undergo yearly independent audits of their risk management systems.

Failure to comply with the rules may result in fines of up to 6% of companies’ global annual revenues. For a company like Meta, the parent company of Facebook, that could mean a penalty as high as $7 billion based on 2021 sales figures.

The law is now subject to formal approval by EU co-legislators and is expected to come into force as early as 2024.

The DSA aims to end, in Europe at least, an era of self-regulation in which tech companies set their own policies about what content could stay up or be taken down and which time and again have proven to be, at best, unsatisfactory.

The harmful effects of social media platforms have been well-documented and studied over the years by researchers, policymakers, journalists, and press freedom organisations, many of which have been pushing for better standards to safeguard the platforms’ users, including women journalists who over the past years have experienced an unprecedented increase in online violence.

Social media’s harm confirmed

In October last year, a former Facebook employee turned whistle-blower, Frances Haugen revealed how Facebook deliberately amplifies divisive content to make more money.

Using internal company documents that she had copied during her time at the company, she demonstrated that Facebook’s algorithms made it easier to elicit users’ responses by presenting them with controversial or hateful content. This drives up engagement and makes them spend longer on the platform, thus increasing Facebook’s profits.

This practice, Haugen said, creates “conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook — and Facebook over and over again chose to optimise for its own interests, like making more money.”

A month after her identity was revealed, Haugen appeared before the European Parliament to present her findings and fielded questions from MEPs that focused on how to make the platforms more accountable and to ensure that risk assessment and risk mitigation provisions in the proposed Digital Services Act (DSA) are strong enough to avoid abuses, polarisation, and address risks to democracy.

Technology platforms in the hands of a few

The concerns over Elon Musk’s forthcoming Twitter takeover are not unfounded. Although the billionaire has declared that his interest in the company lies in encouraging free speech, many believe this will simply loosen even the few existing controls against hate speech and disinformation that Twitter imposes.

The International and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ/EFJ) have condemned the planned takeover, warning it threatens pluralism, and press freedom and creates a playground for disinformation.

Moreover, Musk himself has a chequered history of championing the cause of free speech. In his tweets, public remarks, and policies at the businesses he runs, Musk shows little tolerance for speech that’s unflattering to him or his companies or reflects employee criticism of the workplace.

At Tesla Inc. and SpaceX, Musk has a long track record of silencing or punishing anyone who goes public with criticism of a project or practice. Meanwhile, the billionaire uses his Twitter account, with more than 80 million followers and a fan base he can ignite, to publicly mock others, from a local health official during the early days of the pandemic to Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s current chief executive officer.

Additionally and perhaps more worryingly, Musk would be joining six of the 10 richest Americans who now own or control a business that straddles the line between media and technology, raising questions about their influence over speech and information, not just in the United States but across the globe.

EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez said: “The billionaire has never hesitated in the past to use Twitter to manipulate information, influence stock prices, and control media coverage of his own business. We have every reason to believe that he will tighten his grip on the social network for his own benefit, with no regard for the public interest. It is high time to regulate the ownership of media and social networks in order to counteract a concentration of power that is harmful to pluralism, public debate, and democracy”.

                           
                               
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