Elon Musk’s plan to make Twitter a “free speech” hub following his $44bn takeover of the social media network could see the platform face an “immediate roadblock” from the UK government’s proposed Online Safety Bill.
Announcing the deal to buy Twitter last month, Musk said: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
However, the UK’s polarising Online Safety Bill, which was introduced into Parliament in March, aims to rein in Big Tech firms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter.
If passed into law, it could see social media companies fined up to 10% of global turnover for failing to protect users from harmful content. In the most egregious breaches, social media executives could face up to two years in jail.
A government spokesperson from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has made clear that Twitter will be fully liable for violating online laws in cases where free speech is put above user harm.
“Twitter and all social media platforms must protect their users from harm on their sites,” the spokesperson told UKTN.
“We are introducing new online safety laws to safeguard children, prevent abusive behaviour and protect free speech. All tech firms with users in the UK will need to comply with the new laws or face hefty fines and having their sites blocked.”
While the government has said the bill will protect freedom of expression, critics have warned that Twitter could fall foul of the proposed law, should it relax its content moderation policies.
Musk ‘against censorship that goes far beyond the law’
“Twitter is going to find it very difficult to operate in the UK if it tries to operate on a completely free speech, zero-rules basis,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
Matthew Lesh, head of public policy at free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, said that Musk’s “free speech vision will run into an immediate roadblock” in the UK.
Lesh added: “The Online Safety Bill will mandate platforms to proactively monitor user content and encourage censorship. Companies will be required to remove anything that could potentially be illegal, from ‘hate speech’ to emotionally distressing content — under the threat of multibillion-pound fines.
“This will empower the easily offended and malicious actors to push for removal of speech.”
Gavin Millar QC told The Times that the Online Safety Bill “does not contain the statutory safeguards that would be required to prevent or limit the risk of violations of the right [to free speech]”.
While Musk is a self-described “free speech absolutist”, he has also said that he is “against censorship that goes far beyond the law”.
He added: “If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.
This week Conservative MP Julian Knight wrote to Musk inviting the Tesla and SpaceX CEO to London to discuss the future of Twitter.