Twitter will be banned in Europe unless it abides by EU’s Digital Services Act

The European Commission has issued a warning to owner Elon Musk for his push to transform the social network into a freewheeling haven of free speech.
1 December 2022

Twitter will be banned in the Europe if it fails to abide to EU’s Digital Services Act. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

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When Elon Musk’s reign on Twitter began, the billionaire vowed to bring “free speech” back to the social media platform. At the same time, he also promised to abide by national laws, and sought to reassure concerned European Union (EU) officials that he would follow the tough standards around hate speech and disinformation laid down in the bloc’s new Digital Services Act. 

Decisions will come to haunt you

Very quickly after that, Musk started scaling back content moderation and other safeguards at Twitter. What he may or may not have understood is the fact that authorities in Europe had their eye on him and his social media platform. In fact, they have been standing by for any signs that Twitter may run afoul of European speech laws.

The first warning came from European Commission’s executive vice president Margrethe Vestager, who oversees digital policy for the 27-nation bloc: “There is a European rulebook, and you should live by it,” she said, in her first interview since Musk took over Twitter. “Otherwise, we have penalties. We have the fines. We have all the assessments and all the decisions that will come to haunt you.”

When asked if European regulators are now scrutinizing Twitter, Vestager replied: “Of course we are. We have the responsibility to enforce this legislation. This is what we have promised. Voters, consumers and users have had promises made.” When Musk tweeted that “the bird is freed,” around the time of his purchase of Twitter, Thierry Breton replied, “In Europe, the bird will fly by our EU rules.”

Breton is a European commissioner for the internal market who is also leading the bloc’s new Digital Services Act. In response to Breton’s warning, Musk did say he is “very much on the same page” as the EU about the new online rules, which — among other things — require large platforms to police illegal content and assess the risk of the harm their services pose, including from disinformation.

However, the EU doesn’t seem to like what it has been observing on Twitter, as a renewed warning came in this week, as reported by the Financial Times. In fact, the renewed pressure isn’t coming from the EU alone — even the US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Musk’s purchase of Twitter would warrant a government review if deemed to raise national security concerns.

Citing people familiar with the matter, the Financial Times said there had been a video call between Musk and Breton, in which the latter told the former that Twitter must adhere to a checklist of rules, including ditching an “arbitrary” approach to reinstating banned users, pursuing disinformation “aggressively” and agreeing to an “extensive independent audit” of the platform by next year.  

Misinformation policy scrapped

Breton reiterated that Twitter could face a Europe-wide ban or fines of up to 6% of global turnover if it breached the law. “I welcome Elon Musk’s statements of intent to get Twitter 2.0 ready for the DSA,” Breton said, as reported by The Guardian. “I am pleased to hear that he has read it carefully and considers it as a sensible approach to implement on a worldwide basis. But let’s also be clear that there is still huge work ahead, as Twitter will have to implement transparent user policies, significantly reinforce content moderation and protect freedom of speech.”

For context, Musk has indicated he will reinstate nearly all banned Twitter accounts, including those suspended for hate speech. Musk even reinstated former President Donald Trump’s account. In fact, Twitter’s reinstatement policies have changed several times since Musk took over in October, and he initially promised an “independent moderation council” would convene before any accounts were allowed back, but later scrapped the idea. 

Twitter also announced that it is no longer enforcing its policy against Covid-19 misinformation, and within hours of Musk taking over, racist language previously blocked on the platform surged. The billionaire praised targeted ads, which are the focus of an EU crackdown to better protect users from pervasive online surveillance. 

He personally retweeted misinformation about the assault and attempted kidnapping that left US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband gravely injured. Making matters worse is the fact that the trust-and-safety and content-moderation teams at Twitter have taken huge hits since Musk took over. Of the social media platform’s 7,500 employees that were let go, the trust and safety departments were hit the hardest.  Even the data protection chief at Twitter left after Musk took over.

Whether Musk can rein in his whims, adopt the European standards and stick to them remains to be seen. but Breton’s line, “In Europe, the bird will fly by our EU rules” appears clear-cut and non-negotiable. The phrase “or not at all” feels heavily implied.