Elon Musk Summoned by UK Parliament over Twitter Free Speech Promises

TOPSHOT - CEO, and chief engineer at SpaceX, Elon Musk and his mother, supermodel Maye Mus
ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Elon Musk’s self-professed dedication to freedom of speech online has led to British parliamentarians inviting the billionaire Tesla owner to appear before them so they can interrogate him over how he will enforce the UK government’s planned clampdown on social media.

The head of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the House of Commons, Conservative MP Julian Knight issued a letter calling for American citizen Elon Musk to appear before the committee to lay out his plans for Twitter after coming to an agreement to take the company private last month.

“At a time when social media companies face the prospect of tighter regulations around the world, we’re keen to learn more about how Mr Musk will balance his clear commitment to free speech with new obligations to protect Twitter’s users from online harms,” Knight said in a statement.

“Appearing before the committee will give Mr Musk an ideal opportunity to set out his proposals for Twitter in more depth and we would look forward to welcoming him,” the Tory MP added.

It is not yet clear whether Mr Musk will receive the letter at all, given the version published by the committee appears to have been sent in error to Palo Alto, California. Musk relocated Tesla from California to Austin, Texas last year.

While Mr Musk has vowed to lift the censorious restrictions imposed by the current Silicon Valley regime in charge of Twitter, the British government has been working to add more levels of restrictions to the internet, including on social media.

The impending Online Safety Bill will place social media companies under the purview of Ofcom (The Office of Communications), the broadcasting regulator in Britain, which will be empowered with the ability to fine firms up to ten per cent of their global revenue should they fall afoul of vaguely defined “harm” standards.

While the bill will mandate that social media companies abide by laws restricting speech in Britain, such hate speech laws and communications offences which include already broad terms including “grossly offensive“, the legislation would further force firms to police content that is otherwise legal but determined to be “harmful” to children or adults.

At present, this is defined in the bill a causing “a significant adverse physical or psychological impact” on the adult or the child, which inherently leaves a wide room for interpretation and subjectivity.

Commenting on the trouble that Elon Musk will run into should he try bring free speech over the pond to Britain, Big Brother Watch founder Silkie Carlo wrote in the Sunday Telegraph: “For him to protect Twitter users from ‘harm’ requires deference not to primary legislation or objective legal standards, but to the whims of ministers.”

“There is no statutory definition of ‘harm’ in the new Bill. The Secretary of State of the day can decide what categories of lawful speech qualify as ‘harmful’ without limitation,” the civil liberties campaigner noted.

Carlo said that while the news of Musk taking over Twitter resulted in an “outpouring of neuroticism” about the potential of free speech reigning from the “pro-censorship left”, those in Britain should be more concerned with the ramifications of the government’s proposed crackdown on speech.

Musk, for his part, has said that his vision of free speech will prohibit “censorship that goes far beyond the law”. It is unclear, therefore, if he intends to establish differing standards for more censorious countries, while allowing more liberties in countries that have more robust freedom of speech protections than countries like the UK.

The plans for ushering in more freedom on the platform may also fall afoul of the standards of the European Union, which is planning on implementing a Digital Services Act, which would require Big Tech firms to introduce more restrictions surrounding so-called “hate speech” and “disinformation”.

Indeed, following the news of Musk’s takeover of Twitter, the EU’s Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton warned Musk that Twitter will have to abide by speech regulations in the bloc.

“Elon, there are rules… You are welcome but these are our rules. It’s not your rules which will apply here,” Breton said.

Follow Kurt Zindulka on Twitter here @KurtZindulka


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