Elon Musk and free speech

Elon Musk wants to buy Twitter and make it a private company. In his SEC filing, he said:

I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.

To understand Elon's bid, you need to understand his underlying motivation: he explicitly wants Twitter because he believes he can unlock more "free speech" on the platform.

He isn't, for example, trying to make Twitter more profitable or increase revenue; his motivation is ideological, not capitalistic.1

If Elon Musk bought Twitter, would it be a better place for free speech?

Twitter, Elon, and free speech

To start, we'll need to talk about what free speech is. 

It's tricky to define because there are no scientifically observable "universal principles of free speech." 

In reality, free speech is a social construct encoded into law by different jurisdictions. As a result, your definition of free speech will depend largely on the country you live in: Canada, the United States, the European UnionEgyptIsraelSingapore, Russia etc.

As it stands currently, Twitter is a private-sector company in the United States, and already follows free speech regulations there. For example, according to US law, Twitter has the right to moderate content and remove users:

The First Amendment of the US Constitution limits the government—not private entities—from restricting free expression. This is why companies like Facebook and Twitter can moderate content—and also why they could suspend then-President Trump’s accounts during his last weeks in office. (Ref)

Recently, some high-profile Republicans have stated that Twitter shouldn't have the right to ban certain users. But, it was a Republican president (Nixon) who gave American corporations this power:

Only after President Richard Nixon appointed four pro-business conservative justices did the Supreme Court reject this view of the First Amendment, and insist that private corporations have no constitutional obligation to grant access to their property to speakers they dislike, no matter how powerful those corporations might be. (Ref)

So when Elon says he wants "[to make Twitter] adhere to free speech principles," he's not talking about the legal principle of free speech.

Which begs the question: which definition of free speech is Elon alluding to? 

It seems what he really means is that he wants to make Twitter adhere to his personal beliefs about free speech. When asked about what it meant to be a "free speech absolutist" in his TED interview, Elon responded:

Well, I think, obviously Twitter or any forum is bound by the laws of the country it operates in. So, obviously there are some limitations on free speech in the US. And of course, Twitter would have to abide by those rules.

Already, Elon is conceding that this isn't about free speech. Again, free speech isn't an observable universal law; it only exists as a legal concept. And, in the USA at least, Twitter is acting within those boundaries.

The history of free speech on the internet

Prof. Kate Klonick’s paper, The New Governors, is an excellent summary of the history of free speech on online platforms. 

She summarizes the current state this way:

Platforms have created a voluntary system of self-regulation because they are economically motivated to create a hospitable environment for their users in order to incentivize engagement. This self-regulation involves both reflecting the norms of their users around speech as well as keeping up as much speech as possible. Online platforms also self-regulate for reasons of social and corporate responsibility, which in turn reflect free speech norms. These motivations reflect both the Good Samaritan incentives and collateral censorship concerns.

Klonick's paper demonstrates that this isn't a new issue: tech companies have been wrestling with free speech issues since 1991, with Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe Inc.

Her paper also reveals how complicated it is to apply free speech principles on a global platform:

Wong, Hoffman, and Willner all described being acutely aware of their predisposition to American democratic culture, which put a large emphasis on free speech and American cultural norms. Simultaneously, there were complicated implications in trying to implement those American democratic cultural norms within a global company.

Again, free speech laws differ from country to country. So which conception of free speech should a global platform, like Twitter, impose on its users? Regardless of Musk's personal ideology, he's still beholden to the legal framework of whatever country Twitter operates in.

Mike Masnick's article reviews each of Musk's ideas in light of what social networks have learned in the last decades:

Twitter has spent 15 years experimenting and iterating its policies to deal with a variety of incredibly complex and difficult challenges, nuances, and trade-offs, and as Musk demonstrates later in this interview, he’s not even begun to think through any of them.

Open-sourcing Twitter?

Now, let's look at one of Elon's actual proposals. How would he improve the way Twitter moderates content and user behavior?

Take, for example, Elon's suggestion of open-sourcing the algorithm. In his TED talk, he said:

One of the things I believe Twitter should do is open source the algorithm. Anytime they make any changes to people’s tweets — if they’re emphasized or de-emphasized — that should be made apparent so that anyone can see that action has been taken.

Mike Masnick reminds his readers that Twitter had a similar philosophy in its first years:

This is the same sort of thing that early Twitter and Facebook and other platform people said in the early days. And then they found out it doesn’t work.

Klonick's paper also describes early Twitter as being incredibly permissive:

At Twitter, the company established an early policy not to police user content, except in certain circumstances, and rigorously defended that right. Adherence to this ethos led to Twitter’s early reputation among social media platforms as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” It also meant that unlike YouTube and Facebook, which actively took on content moderation of their users’ content, Twitter developed no internal content-moderation process for taking down and reviewing content. 

(You can read more about the evolution of Twitter's policies on Motherboard: The History of Twitter's Rules).

So it's not like Twitter hasn't been here before: they've tried policies similar to what Musk is suggesting and found that, in practice, they don't work. Masnick points out that the biggest benefactors of an open-source Twitter algorithm would be spammers:

There’s a reason why Google’s search algorithm has become more and more opaque over the years. Not because it’s trying to suppress people, but because the people who were most interested in understanding how it all worked were search engine spammers. Open sourcing the Twitter algorithm would do the same thing.

In his article, Elon Musk, Twitter, and the Weaponization of Open Source, Mike Melanson reminds us that open-source alternatives to Twitter already exist (Mastadon being the most popular). When Elon talks about "open sourcing Twitter," he's not talking about open-sourcing the underlying code (giving programmers around the world the ability to contribute):

We’re not talking about open sourcing Twitter so that we can transfer it to a foundation, ensure its proper governance, and make sure that no singular entity has too much power over its direction. Rather, Musk wants to open source Twitter to throw back the curtain and expose what he sees as Twitter’s nefarious, anti-free-speech leanings inside its algorithms.

This isn't "open source" the way many developers have experienced it. You won't be able to issue pull requests, and help modify Twitter's algorithm.

Instead, you (and spammers, and trolls) will be able to see how the algorithm works.

Also, as far back as 2018, former CEO Jack Dorsey was also interested in open-sourcing Twitter's algorithm:

If you read the comments on that tweet, you'll see how difficult it is to please everyone. 

Elon privately owning Twitter: good or bad?

The Verge also points out that Musk owning Twitter outright would likely make the company more susceptible to government regulation:

Far from being better equipped to protect free speech, a Musk-owned Twitter might be in a weaker position than a publicly owned one. Musk’s involvement in numerous other industries — including telecommunications with Starlink, space travel with SpaceX, and cars with Tesla — would give regulators and politicians added leverage to pressure Twitter with.

If Musk were genuinely concerned about how free speech laws are currently applied, he could skip buying Twitter and just petition the government to change the rules. For example, in the EU, free speech legislation is implemented differently:

[The EU's proposed legislation], the DSA, also allows users to challenge takedown decisions and encourages transparency about content moderation decisions. European governments would not only tell companies what they must remove, but also what they must not remove. (Ref)

But Musk doesn't seem interested in lobbying for new laws. Rather, he seems more interested in buying all of Twitter's shares so he can control how moderation works on the platform.

In summary:

Elon has the right to buy Twitter (in the same way other billionaires can buy media properties). 

If he does buy it, he will be allowed to enforce his concept of "free speech" on Twitter (in the same way that Twitter's current leaders have that freedom).

But that will not be a win for "free speech" (in its actual meaning): it will be a win for folks who see the world the way Elon does. That's an entirely different thing.

Justin Jackson


As a board member, Elon Musk would have a fiduciary duty to increase the value of Twitter for its shareholders (which is likely why he declined his seat).

Published on April 20th, 2022
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