Elon Musk risks EU penalties with his Twitter course

Brussels The reforms at Twitter could be illegal under European law. “If Twitter no longer has the option to remove illegal content, that is a clear breach of the rules of the Digital Services Act,” says Alexandra Geese, who worked on the law as a Green MEP.

The “Digital Services Act”, or “DSA” for short, was negotiated in the EU for a year and a half and will come into force this Wednesday. It is intended to ensure that the powerful online platforms use their power carefully.

After billionaire Elon Musk bought Twitter in late October, thousands of employees responsible for “content moderation” were fired. Critics fear that illegal content that is harmful to young people and fake news on the platform could be inadequately controlled as a result.

“According to the DSA, Twitter must comply with corporate due diligence requirements,” says Julian Jaursch from the New Responsibility Foundation. “This requires employees who deal with complaint management, security and transparency of the recommendation systems.” According to the rules of the DSA, it would be illegal to completely refrain from deleting illegal content, he explains.

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Penalties of up to six percent of annual global sales

In the event of repeated violations of the DSA rules, the law provides for high fines of up to six percent of the annual worldwide turnover. For Twitter, which earned around $5 billion in 2021, that would be around $300 million.

No new rules for content are defined in the DSA – what is illegal and what is allowed is still decided by the EU member states. But the DSA now stipulates that platforms must analyze risks and react to them.

In concrete terms, this means that they must adapt their deletion rules and algorithms in such a way that debates and elections are not manipulated by these systems.

If Twitter’s mass layoffs result in substantive user complaints being primarily reviewed by bots, Twitter will quickly come into conflict with the DSA. MEP Moritz Körner (FDP)

The platforms will probably have to prepare the first risk analyzes from next summer. Independent bodies will check whether these analyzes are carried out carefully and whether the findings have any consequences.

To rely entirely on automation, as Musk might intend to do, would arguably be a violation of the rules. “If the mass layoffs on Twitter lead to user complaints being checked mainly by bots, Twitter will quickly come into conflict with the DSA,” says MEP Moritz Körner (FDP).

>> Read here: Truth instead of anger: how the EU is now taming the internet

Other conflicts could arise in relation to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). There it is stipulated that online platforms appoint a data protection officer. This position was recently held by Damien Kieran, who also served as Chief Privacy Officer.

He resigned after the takeover – as did many others who were eligible for the post. According to “Techcrunch”, it is unclear whether suitable candidates can still be found for the delicate post.

Twitter’s European headquarters are in Ireland. The Irish data protection authority responsible for this has already publicly expressed concern about the events. The GDPR provides for penalties of up to four percent of global annual sales.

While there is already some experience with conflicts in relation to the GDPR, the implementation of the DSA is still new territory. It was also hard to foresee that one of the really big platforms would come into conflict with the DSA so quickly.

While the law has been fine-tuned over the past two years, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube and Tiktok have outdone each other with announcements about the methods they would use to better protect their users in the future.

Facebook group

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube and Tiktok outdid each other with announcements about the methods they would use to better protect their users in the future.

(Photo: IMAGO/Revierfoto)

Difficulties were indicated above all with platforms such as Telegram, which explicitly wants to evade any state control, but not with the large American services.

Accordingly, the DSA is primarily designed to achieve long-term improvements in the functioning of the networks. In this way, scientists should be able to research why fake news often spreads faster than real news and whether social networks increase mental illness.

The researchers will also have access to the platforms’ algorithms, which have been well protected up to now. Step by step, something like this should be done against the sometimes toxic effects of social networks.

Responsibilities within the EU must be clarified

But that takes time. The process is still being delayed by the fact that after the law has come into force, responsibilities within the EU still have to be clarified.

And secondly, the cooperation of the platforms is necessary. “The DSA can set legal limits, but it cannot prevent Musk from turning Twitter into a fake news slingshot if he wants to,” says Körner.

Musk recently shared fake news himself from a conspiracy theory online portal. He has also insulted others as a “child rapist”. Such statements could be tolerated on Twitter in the future as an expression of freedom of speech. “The bird is free,” Musk tweeted after the takeover.

A declaration of war came from the EU: “In Europe, the bird will fly according to our EU rules,” wrote Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton. However, the responsible Vice President of the EU Commission, Margrethe Vestager, said on Monday about the DSA that implementing such a law would probably be a thousand times more difficult than writing it.

However, some observers are betting that Musk has speculated wrongly and that the relevance of Twitter is fading faster than the DSA can have an effect. “Should the terms and conditions soon provide that hatred and hate speech are allowed on the platform, then it is foreseeable that many people will leave the platform or no longer express their opinion,” says Geese.

More: The EU regulates the Internet – and presents the best law that could happen to the digital

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