Yesterday, news of Elon Musk’s Twitter purchase rocked the internet. Digital rights group Fight for the Future issued the following statement, which be attributed to Evan Greer (she/her):
“If we want a future with free speech, it’s not going to be a future where the richest man on earth can simply purchase a platform that millions of people depend on, and then change the rules to his liking.
Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter exposes the underlying problem: there are a tiny handful of corporations that essentially have a monopoly on human attention, and enormous power over what can be seen and heard and done online. Billions of people are dependent on this centralized, privatized communications infrastructure, but the companies themselves are beholden only to shareholders and the super wealthy.
Musk is right about one thing: free speech is in danger. Sex workers, Black liberation organizations, Palestine activists, and other marginalized groups are routinely deplatformed and censored on major social media platforms, often without transparency or recourse. Journalists, activists, artists and others are routinely driven off of platforms or forced into self-censorship due to harassment and haphazard enforcement of Terms of Service.
Content moderation decisions on platforms as consequential as Twitter should be made carefully and through a human rights framework. But over the last several years, major social media platforms have increasingly made changes to their moderation practices based on news cycles and public relations. Now, there is a single human with the power to make changes to Twitter’s speech policies. That’s not a boon for free expression, it makes a mockery of it.
It was a problem when Twitter answered to Wall Street. But it’s certainly not better if it’s run by one billionaire.
It’s terrifying to think that Elon Musk now has access not just to Twitter’s megaphone, but all of the company’s data. Fight for the Future has long campaigned for Twitter to implement end-to-end encryption on Direct Messages. They didn’t, and now Musk alone ostensibly has access to millions of people’s private communications. What happens if a government leans on Musk for access? What happens if it’s in a country where Tesla is hoping to do business? These are questions we should not have to ask ourselves.
To preserve free speech and human rights for our children and our children’s children, we need a world where Internet users have real control over their online experience, and real choices for online platforms and communities that work for them. Ideally, social media would be built on decentralized open source protocols, more like email or SMS, and governed transparently and democratically by the people who use it.
To get from here to there, we need lawmakers to act, not billionaires. First, Congress should pass antitrust reform bills including the Open App Markets Act (OAMA) and the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA). These bills won’t magically solve everything that’s wrong with the tech industry, but they will meaningfully crack down on the self-dealing and anti-competitive practices of the largest tech companies, and pave the way for a future where Internet users have more choice. Lawmakers and regulators should also crack down on the data harvesting and surveillance practices that are at the root of Silicon Valley dominance and monopoly power, and give other less harmful business models a chance.
People can say ‘I’m going to leave Twitter’ all they want. But for many journalists, artists, activists, and others, that’s not really an option until there is someplace else they can go with actual network effect.
Elon Musk can’t give us a future with online free speech and human rights. But we Internet users can fight for policies and technologies that will lead to that future. And we must.”