Will an Elon Musk-Led Twitter Find Friend or Foe With EU Regulators?


Elon Musk is inches away from sealing a deal to buy Twitter for approximately $43 billion, according to different news outlets. Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” said in an interview during a TED conference on April 14 that “it is very important for [Twitter] to be an inclusive arena for free speech.”

During the same week that Elon Musk could acquire Twitter, European Union institutions announced an agreement on the Digital Services Act (DSA), a new law that will significantly increase the responsibilities of Big Tech companies for the content posted in their platforms. EU institutions want platforms to be safe for consumers and remove illegal and harmful content without curtailing freedom of speech. But will Elon Musk’s quest for freedom of speech bring Twitter closer or further from the EU’s goals?

If Musk and Twitter close a deal, Musk is poised to add a few changes to the company’s policies, from adding a “edit” button for tweets, to allow longer tweets, or to stop relying so much on advertising for its revenue. While all these changes are business focused and regulators aren’t likely to have any opinion, there are other suggestions that may raise concerns among regulators, or if properly designed and implemented, may actually be praised by regulators.

First, what are Twitter obligations under the new DSA? As Twitter has more than 45 million monthly active users in the EU, it will be considered a very large online platform (VLOP) and it will be subject to stringent requirements. This includes annual risk assessments aimed at reducing the risks associated with dissemination of illegal content, adverse effects on fundamental rights, manipulation of services having an impact on democratic processes and adverse effects on gender-based violence, and on minors and serious consequences for the physical or mental health of users.

The company will also have to protect minors, for instance by prohibiting targeted advertising based on the use of minors’ personal data. Dark patterns will also be banned for Twitter and the company will have to make their algorithms more transparent including how they recommend content to users. Users should also have the choice to have another system for recommending content not based on their profiles (i.e., chronological news feed). Failure to comply with these obligations could result in hefty fines.

Second, regardless of whether Musk finally acquires the company or not, Twitter will need to comply with the DSA. Yet, Musk has suggested that he would like to soften Twitter´s stance on content moderation and here is where he may clash with EU regulators. According to the new law, illegal content will need to be removed, but harmful content will need to be moderated according to the company’s terms and conditions. In this category we may find different content from fake news, to bullying or scams, but the limits, particularly on people´s opinions, aren’t clear. However, what is clearer is that Musk could have the power to change the company´s terms and conditions on content moderation and this could bring the company closer to or further from EU regulators.

Third, some of the possible lines of action Musk has suggested could appease regulators in Europe. For instance, Musk suggested making Twitter’s algorithm open source. This would be in line with the transparency sought by EU regulators. Musk also suggested that if Twitter makes changes to amplify or reduce a tweet´s reach, the company should give users information about it. Again, this would be in line with a new requirement to explain to users why content has been removed and even provide the user with the possibility to appeal that removal. Another proposal from Musk, in fact a “top priority,” would be eliminating “bot armies” on Twitter, which spam accounts and run scams. This would go to the core of the DSA and regulators would likely be pleased with such a policy.

In summary, Elon Musk and the EU institutions may both be protecting free speech in their own ways, but Musk’s plans for Twitter may not necessarily clash with those of the EU institutions if content moderation still deals effectively with “harmful but legal” content.

Read more: EU’s Deal on Online Content Bill Still Leaves Questions Unanswered