July 19, 2024

Europe wastes no time warning Musk over ‘arbitrary suspension of journalists’

8 min read
Europe wastes no time warning Musk over ‘arbitrary suspension of journalists’

Europe wastes no time warning Musk over ‘arbitrary suspension of journalists’

European Union lawmakers have wasted no time warning Twitter-owner Elon Musk over “arbitrary suspension of journalists” following reports late yesterday that a number of reporters who had recently written about Musk had had their Twitter accounts suspended without warning.

Věra Jourová, an EU vice-president for values and transparency, took to Twitter this morning to tweet the bloc’s concern over Musk’s actions — and to issue a pointed warning of “red lines” and “sanctions” baked into recently updated EU rules for digital services which she noted require respect for media freedom and fundamental rights.

“News about arbitrary suspension of journalists on Twitter is worrying. EU’s Digital Services Act [DSA] requires respect of media freedom and fundamental rights. This is reinforced under our #MediaFreedomAct. @elonmusk should be aware of that. There are red lines. And sanctions, soon,” the EU commissioner wrote.

Among its many provisions, the incoming EU regulation puts requirements on providers of intermediary services not to act in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner when applying their terms of service — and to respect fundamental rights, such freedom of expression and information, and including media freedom and pluralism.

Sanctions available to the EU under the regulation include penalties that can scale up to 6{5be0972a10a00bb621c1a18de1a801d58662e556d02921cebb422beac5e5b2fe} of global annual turnover — as well as powers for regulators to act swiftly on suspected infringements by imposing temporary corrective measures. In extreme cases, the Commission can also apply to EU courts to block a violating service from being accessed in the region.

The Commission proposed the European Media Freedom Act in September — which is intended to supplement the DSA with additional measures to protect media freedom and pluralism in the EU, including measures against “unjustified removal by very large online platforms (above 45 million users in the EU) of media content produced according to professional standards”.

Although this legislation has still to be adopted via the bloc’s usual co-legislative process — so it could be years before these targeted media freedom measures are confirmed in EU law.

Journalists suspended by Twitter in this (latest) wave of erratic Musk enforcements include the Washington Post’s Drew Harwell, the New York Times’ Ryan Mac and CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, as well as a number of other reporters from publications such as Mashable and the Intercept.

Musk implied the action was taken because the journalists had breached Twitter rules about doxxing that were amended Wednesday to prohibit the sharing of live location information after Musk took action to suspend a bot account, called @ElonJet — which, since June 2020, has tweeted the live location of Musk’s private jet using publicly available flight data.

The suspension followed an incident earlier this week, when Musk complained that a stalker had followed a car containing his son.

A Twitter Spaces audio stream that was quickly spun up around the journalist suspensions, hosted by BuzzFeed reporter Katie Notopoulos, was reported by attendees to have pulled in the creator of the ElonJet bot, several of the suspended journalists themselves — who were, hold tight, still able to join this despite their Twitter accounts being suspended (apparently because of a quirk of Twitter’s legacy infrastructure related to the audio streaming bolt-on) — and, briefly, also attended by Elon Musk himself — before the stream was abruptly shut down.

During the livestream, snippets of which are (currently) circulating on Twitter, Musk defended the suspensions by claiming the journalists had breached Twitter’s rules against doxxing by sharing his real-time location.

“There is not going to be any distinction in the future between journalists — ‘so-called journalists’ — and regular people,” Musk can be heard telling Notopoulos in recordings of the livestream being shared on Twitter. “Everyone’s going to be treated the same. You’re not special because you’re a journalist. You’re just a Twitter [user] — you’re a citizen. So no special treatment. You doxx, you get suspended. End of story.”

Musk also suggested that what he called “ban evasion or trying to be clever about it — like, oh I posted a link to the real-time information” would be interpreted as an attempt to circumvent the policy prohibition — and therefore that enforcement action would follow on anyone merely sharing links to accounts that post real-time information.

“You share the link to the real-time information, ban evasion — obviously,” said Musk.

Harwell pushed back against what he suggested was Musk’s insinuation that he had shared his address — which Harwell said is “not true”. Musk rebutted with “it is true”. To which Harwell then responded: “In the course of reporting about ElonJet we posted links to ElonJet which are now not online — which are now banned on Twitter, and Twitter also of course marks even the Instagram and Mastadon accounts of ElonJet as harmful — using, we have to admit, acknowledge, using the same exact link-blocking technique that you have criticized as part of the Hunter Biden New York Post story in 2020 so what is different here and there?”

“It’s not more acceptable for you as it is for me — it’s the same thing,” Musk replied, apparently ignoring the question. He followed that, after a brief Harwell interjection, by clarifying that he did not mean his own action suspending journalists for sharing links to ElonJet was unacceptable and reiterating: “No, you dox you get suspended end of story, that’s it.”

At which point, per attendees, Musk cut out of the livestream — and, shortly afterwards, the Twitter Space was shutdown by someone other than the host.

At the time of writing, there are reports of Spaces being unavailable and/or suffering from technical issues, with some Twitter users reporting glitches or other problems with launching a stream. And in the last few hours Musk responded to a complaint about this on Twitter — tweeting briefly that: “We’re fixing a Legacy bug. Should be working tomorrow.”

Musk has also piped up on the social network in recent hours to respond to Twitter chatter criticizing the journalist suspensions — claiming in one tweet that “critizing me all day long is totally fine, but doxxing my real-time location and endangering my family is not”; and in another implying that accounts that breach the rules on doxxing will receive only a “temporary seven day suspension”.

However one of the journalists affected by the ban — Aaron Ruper — has written (via a blog post on Substack) that he received a notification from Twitter saying his account was permanently suspended so it’s anyone’s guess whether Musk will abide by a seven day suspension rule or stick to his pique and decide never to reinstate the reporters.

The claimed seven day suspension ‘policy’ also appears to have been concocted on the fly by Musk after he polled Twitter users asking when accounts that doxxed “my exact location in real-time” should be unsuspended.

The winning option from that poll was actually “now” — which took 43{5be0972a10a00bb621c1a18de1a801d58662e556d02921cebb422beac5e5b2fe} of 535,233 votes. The option for ‘Seven days’ received just 14.4{5be0972a10a00bb621c1a18de1a801d58662e556d02921cebb422beac5e5b2fe} of the vote — underlining quite how arbitrary Musk’s policy decisions at Twitter are proving to be. (See also, among others, his decision to issue a general amnesty on previously banned accounts (also with a few exceptions apparently based on Musk’s personal preferences, such as InfoWars’ Alex Jones remaining banned); as well as Musk opting to undo the permanent ban on former US president Donald Trump (who has, so far, refrained from tweeting as he has his own social platform to worry about these days) after Musk ran another poll of Twitter users — rather than waiting for a content moderation council he had previously claimed he would establish to take such decisions to be formed. So, er, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

Returning to the EU’s DSA, the regulation entered into force last month but will only begin to apply — meaning that’s the date from when compliance is expected — from February 17 next year, which is the applicable deadline for a subset of larger platforms, so-called “very large online platforms” (VLOPs), which have additional obligations under the DSA — in areas like algorithmic accountability and assessing and mitigating societal risks.

It’s still not clear if Twitter will be designated a VLOP under the DSA — or if it will fall under the general regime for digital services — which does not include the extra obligations and has a longer grace period (til February 2024) before compliance kicks in.

The Commission will make these formal designations of VLOPs by February. But, as we’ve reported before, Musk’s erratic piloting of Twitter since he took over at the end of October has clearly rattled Brussels — triggering a series of warnings and other actions by the Commission in recent weeks. Including a statement following reports of more layoffs at Twitter that it may take more expansive criteria (than sheer size) into account when deciding which platforms will face the additional obligations the DSA applies to VLOPs — such as the “appropriateness” of resources dedicated to complying with the bloc’s rules.

Last month, the Commission also revealed it has arranged to conduct a stress test of Twitter’s resources early next year — so it looks to be preparing to do the work (and ensure it shows its workings) to make that appropriateness assessment in order that it might slap a VLOP designation on Twitter if it deems it necessary (or, well, possible under due process; it certainly won’t want to be accused of taking arbitrary decisions of its own… ).

Discussing the DSA’s sanctions regime, a spokesperson for the Commission told TechCrunch the regulation gives it enforcement powers over VLOPs that are “similar to those it has under anti-trust proceedings”.

“For smaller platforms, each Member State will clearly specify the penalties in their national laws in line with the requirements set out in the Regulation, ensuring they are proportionate to the nature and gravity of the infringement, yet dissuasive to ensure compliance,” it also noted.

The Commission also made a point of emphasizing that the DSA’s enforcement mechanism is not limited to fines. And also deployed some interesting new terminology in this context — making a reference to “rogue platforms” — which reads as if it might very well have been coined with Musk in mind.

“The Digital Services Coordinator [aka a national regulator that enforces the DSA on non-VLOPs at EU Member State level] and the Commission will have the power to require immediate actions where necessary to address very serious harms, and platforms may offer commitments on how they will remedy them,” it said. “For rogue platforms refusing to comply with important obligations and thereby endangering people’s life and safety, it will be possible as a last resort to ask a court for a temporary suspension of their service, after involving all relevant parties.”

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