Reviews |  Elon Musk's Twitter chaos is bad for the open internet

Reviews | Elon Musk’s Twitter chaos is bad for the open internet

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Elon Musk’s first week as CEO of Twitter has been predictable in its unpredictability: full of high profile firings, conflicting political promises and even misinformation tweeted by the billionaire owner himself. But Mr Musk will soon have to chart a cohesive course for the future of his platform – or the law could crack him down and, indeed, the internet open.

Before acquiring Twitter, Mr. Musk spoke of a “platform for free speech around the world” that would allow almost all legal content, no matter how odious. He has since retired from that position – sort of. Mr Musk said advertisers won’t have to worry about jeopardizing the good reputation of their brands, promising the site won’t become a “free hellish landscape”. Yet he shared in a (subsequently deleted) response to Hillary Clinton an article full of unsubstantiated rumors about the assault on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 82-year-old husband, and he decreed in a response to another tweet that “Anyone suspended for minor & questionable reasons will be released from Twitter jail.

Add to all that the slew of proposals from Mr. Musk to overhaul how Twitter decides what content to investigate, label or remove from the site: a watchdog board to review takedown decisions; an open-source algorithm for sorting user posts; options allowing users to control the extent to which they want Twitter to censor the content they see. These aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but they also seem disjointed and not fully thought through. Mr. Musk seems to be discovering in real time the trade-offs between speech, security and profitability inherent in social media – trade-offs that took a decade to appreciate for industry veterans, but which he is only now facing.

Meanwhile, governments around the world that are unhappy with social media companies, such as in Canada, Britain and India, are instituting regulations on what kinds of speech the platforms can and cannot allow. In the United States, the Supreme Court is set to hear several cases involving Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the so-called 26 words that created the Internet, which granted sites immunity for most content that users post there. Twitter is a party to one such case, which asks whether the platforms can be held liable when terrorist propaganda appears on their sites. Another case asks the same question but with a focus on the algorithms social media sites use to recommend content to users. Then there are legal challenges to Texas and Florida laws that to prevent platforms to delete certain messages.

The results of all but the most carefully considered reforms will be massive unintended consequences, potentially causing sites wary of litigation to start moderating content even more aggressively than they already do, or perhaps even requiring them to not to moderate at all, because the act of moderation exposes their responsibility. Many overseas proposals carry similar risks of substantial adverse side effects.

Faced with these threats, Mr. Musk should fight for an open internet, pursue Twitter’s legal battle in the Supreme Court and dissuade regulators from cracking down. It should do less to respond to random tweets or investigate individual grievances that it finds personally compelling, and more to craft thoughtful rules.

Social media platforms will have a harder time persuading governments to adopt nuanced regulations that preserve their ability to manage their own properties responsibly if they don’t try to be responsible. Section 230 has built an internet that allows platforms to experiment, evolve and learn – which is exactly what Mr. Musk should be doing right now, instead of playing games.

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