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Top European official: if Twitter ignores the law, penalties will 'haunt' Elon Musk

Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission's executive vice president, said on Monday that regulators have stepped up scrutiny of Twitter since Elon Musk acquired the social network.
Bobby Allyn/NPR
Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission's executive vice president, said on Monday that regulators have stepped up scrutiny of Twitter since Elon Musk acquired the social network.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The European Union's competition czar has a message for Twitter's new boss Elon Musk: We are watching you.

Since the Tesla CEO took ownership of the social network last week promising, among other changes, to loosen up rules around what people can post to Twitter, authorities in Europe have been standing by for any signs that Twitter may run afoul of European speech laws.

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

A new European law known as the Digital Services Act forces tech companies to quickly remove posts considered illegal in the countries where the content appears. It also requires that tech companies provide users with information about how their algorithms work.

On top of that, the law requires that large online platforms like Twitter be audited by outside experts to assess how harmful material, like the spread of disinformation, is being handled.

"They will have to make a systemic assessment of their services, whether they can be hijacked for undermining democracy or other harmful practices, or is the service itself harmful for people no matter their terms of service?" Vestager said.

If tech companies fail to abide by the law, European officials can levy fines of up to 6% of annual worldwide revenue. In 2021, Twitter's revenue was about $5 billion, making the maximum possible penalty under the law in the ballpark of $300 million.

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."

The European Union's industry chief was quick to put Musk on notice soon after the billionaire took control of Twitter last week.

When Musk tweeted that "the bird is freed," around the time of his purchase of Twitter, referring to the company's blue bird logo, Thierry Breton replied, "In Europe, the bird will fly by our EU rules."

Reuters earlier in the day reported that Musk has personally told EU officials that he intends to follow all of the bloc's laws governing illegal and harmful speech.

Musk's precise plans for Twitter remain to be seen. While the billionaire styles himself as a "free speech absolutist," and has criticized what he sees as Twitter's overzealous content rules, the fraught question of what is and what is not allowed on the site remains unsettled.

He has said that before any drastic changes are enacted, he will form a "content moderation council" that includes people of "widely diverse viewpoints" to hammer out Twitter's new speech boundaries, or lack of protections. This panel, Musk has tweeted, will weigh whether users who have been kicked off Twitter should be reinstated.

Meanwhile, researchers have also noticed an uptick in hate speech on Twitter since Musk took the reins.

According to the Network Contagion Research Institute, use of the n-word increased 500% following Musk's purchase. Researchers also noted that posts on extremist forums like 4chan are encouraging people to "test the limits" of Twitter's tolerance for hate speech by posting derogatory remarks and seeing what happens.

Musk himself has already fueled a baseless conspiracy from his own Twitter account to his more than 112 million followers with a post about the violent attack on the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In a now-deleted tweet, Musk on Sunday wrote: "there is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye," linking to an article from the site the Santa Monica Observer, a fringe website that regularly spreads right-wing conspiracy theories.

While the new European speech rules target systemic risks to people, not problems with individual posts, Vestager said on Monday that Musk should be figuring out how Twitter can reduce the amount of harmful content the platform is showcasing. If he fails to do so, she said, she believes people will leave Twitter for a better alternative.

"I take it for granted that if Twitter is not a good place to be, there will be another place," Vestager said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.