When announcing his acquisition of Twitter on 25 April, Elon Musk pledged to bolster and champion free speech and take steps to ‘free’ the social media platform.
As he did, free speech advocates raised concerns about a potential rise in online abuse, hate speech and disinformation, all of which actually decreases freedom of expression online by driving vulnerable users away.
ARTICLE 19 believes the best way to address the challenges for freedom of expression online is by ensuring that content and data is not controlled by a few, select, powerful companies, thereby fostering a healthier environment for free speech.
We would welcome a commitment from Elon Musk to provide further unrestricted funding to Bluesky, a company that emerged from an initiative announced by Twitter in late 2019 to decentralise standards for social media. Bluesky is working on ‘the development of technologies which enable open and decentralised public conversation’, introducing an interoperable network allowing people to communicate across a range of different platforms and not be restricted to a single one.
ARTICLE 19 would welcome further steps on enhancing and promoting interoperability, and for unbundling two distinct services: hosting content and content moderation. Unbundling could mean dominant social media platforms would still be able to moderate the content on their platforms, but they would be required to allow competitors to provide content moderation services.
The unbundling would take the power out of the hands of few most powerful companies, and help introduce more open, fair and decentralised digital markets, overseen by independent and accountable regulatory authorities (for more information, see ARTICLE 19’s Taming Big Tech policy paper).
“The power of freedom of expression is its ability to level the playing field between the powerful and powerless – that is why it is the fundamental basis for democracy,” said Quinn McKew, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. The framers of the Constitution knew that freely speaking truth to power was necessary to keep it in check. Elon Musk is right that the current system of content moderation is not working, but maybe not for the reasons he thinks. The problems look very different for someone in Myanmar or Turkey than they do for those in Silicon Valley. We urge him to look closely at our proposals designed to decentralise the power of large tech companies over speech online. We call on Musk to be accountable and uphold free speech for all.”
Elon Musk’s ambitions for free speech online are big, but they must place international human rights standards at their centre, or else Twitter will not deliver on the promises its new owner has set in motion.
ARTICLE 19 Executive Director Quinn McKew on Elon Musk and the future of Twitter for Al-Jazeera’s Inside Story