Musk’s moves on Twitter may set him up for a clash with Europe’s ‘red lines’

LONDON — Elon Musk’s decision to suspend several high-profile journalists from Twitter drew condemnation not just in the United States but beyond, where backlash to the move in Europe highlighted what could be an imminent showdown with the billionaire.

The continent’s leaders lined up to criticize the move on Friday, ratcheting up internal pressure on Twitter’s new owner and signaling that his efforts to remake the social media platform may leave him headed for a clash with the tough new rules. of Europe aimed at big technology companies.

Musk reinstated the suspended journalists early Saturday after a poll on Twitter, but had already received criticism from the European Union and the United Nations.

“Freedom of the media is not a toy,” Melissa Fleming, the UN director of global communications, said in a tweet on Friday, adding that she was “deeply disturbed” by the suspension of journalists from the site.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry tweeted that “press freedom cannot be turned on and off on a whim,” while French Industry Minister Roland Lescure tweeted Friday morning that he would suspend his account in protest until further notice. His account remains active, but he does not post tweets. have been done ever since.

‘Red lines’

Perhaps most notable, however, was the reaction from top officials in the EU, the 27-nation bloc that is taking an increasingly tough stance on regulating the online space.

“The EU Digital Services Law requires respect for press freedom and fundamental rights. This is reinforced by our #MediaFreedomAct,” European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová said in a post on Twitter.

“There are red lines,” he said, “and sanctions, soon.”

The Digital Services Law will introduce a sweeping new set of rules designed to curb the power of technology companies and promote the “fundamental online rights” of Internet users. Taking effect in 2024, it will make search engines and platforms more accountable for illegal and harmful content online, including hate speech, scams and misinformation.

“Platforms must, in particular, ensure that their terms and conditions are clear, understandable and transparent, and respect freedom of the press,” a Jourová spokesperson told NBC News in an emailed statement.

“They cannot be arbitrary or discriminatory in their decisions,” they added. Non-compliance in the case of very large online platforms and search engines would result in fines of up to 6% of the company’s global turnover, according to Jourová’s office.

“Rogue platforms that refuse to fulfill important obligations and therefore endanger the lives and safety of people, it will be possible, as a last resort, to apply to a court for the temporary suspension of their service, after involve all relevant parties,” they added.

That broad mandate ensured that Friday was not the first time that Musk drew the ire of the EU over his management of Twitter.

Following internal conflicts at the company in November, senior EU official Thierry Breton warned Musk that in order to comply with the block’s content moderation laws, “Twitter will have to implement transparent user policies, significantly strengthen moderation content and protect free speech, address disinformation resolutely, and limit targeted advertising,” according to a transcript of a conference call released by his office.

Musk also came under fire from European regulators when the company tried to replicate the no-notice firing practices of its “hardcore” rebranding of Twitter with mass layoffs at its European headquarters in Dublin.

But despite the strong rhetoric, experts warned that the EU may struggle to enforce its laws and hold Musk to account on content moderation and free speech as strongly as he was warning.

“All you have to do is look at the EU’s approach to Hungary and Poland, where both countries are eroding democracy and liberal values. Any kind of compliance can take years,” said Joseph Downing, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Aston University’s Center for Europe.

“Elon Musk and Twitter are agile. He can wake up one morning and snap his fingers, and at 4 o’clock, the world has changed,” he added. “The EU can convict you, you can look at the laws and have a discussion, and it’s months or years later.”

Musk accused the journalists of sharing private information about his whereabouts, which he described as “basically murder coordinates.” Several of the suspended reporters had been writing about Twitter’s Latest Rule Change Around Accounts That Track Private Jets and Musk’s justification for imposing it, which involved allegations about a bullying incident he said affected his family.

“The European legal arsenal is not sufficient to oppose acts of arbitrary censorship,” said Ricardo Gutiérrez, Secretary General of the European Federation of Journalists.

“While platforms are ubiquitous in everyday life, governance across the scale of their activities is incomplete and insufficient,” he added.

EU officials have also estimated that add 100+ full-time employees by 2024 to enforce the Digital Services Law and other new regulations on digital competition. Member countries will also have to hire more people to police smaller platforms and coordinate with Brussels.

But the legislation is designed more to ensure that social media companies remove harmful content rather than require that specific content be kept, even when that content comes from news services, according to Downing.

“The Digital Services Act is not set up for this kind of problem, because it is not designed for that,” Downing said, speaking of Thursday’s suspensions of tech journalists.

“There was never the idea that journalists would be banned from Twitter, because that’s not what Twitter does,” he added.

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