Elon Musk pauses and looks down as he speaks during a press conference at SpaceX's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas on February 10, 2022. - Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk delivered an eagerly-awaited update on SpaceX's Starship, a prototype rocket the company is developing for crewed interplanetary exploration. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Elon Musk’s global free speech plan is hardly ambitious

Protocol Policy

Hello and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today we dig further into Elon Musk’s plan — or lack thereof — to address free speech issues on Twitter around the world. TikTok is being investigated for CSAM. And New York will soon require crypto companies to pay for their own regulatory supervision.

Around the world in 280 characters

In a letter to Twitter chair Bret Taylor, Elon Musk said he invested in Twitter because he believes “in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe.” Musk went on to claim that Twitter could not “serve this societal imperative in its current form,” which motivated his offer to take Twitter private with a $43 billion cash offer.

Let’s talk about the “free speech around the globe” part of that. Because while promoting free speech around the world is a noble cause, taking Twitter private won’t address the fundamental issues.

Social media companies — even private ones — must stay in the good graces of governments to operate. Time and again, governments threaten to shut down social media platforms if they don’t moderate content to their liking. This is an inconvenient truth in the tech world; it’s what Big Tech policy teams mean when they say they’re “just following local law.”

  • Meta, for instance, outlined this policy in its most recent transparency report: “When something on Facebook or Instagram is reported to us as violating local law, but doesn't go against our Community Standards, we may restrict the content's availability in the country where it is alleged to be illegal.”
  • Similarly, Twitter says its goal “is to respect user expression, while also taking into consideration applicable local laws.”

This plays out all around the world, often with little media coverage in the U.S. And to be clear, the U.S. has its own issues with applying “free speech,” but we want to focus on the “around the globe” part today.

  • India’s government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi successfully pressured Twitter to block thousands of accounts that supported the farmer protest in Delhi, according to The Intercept. The government reportedly threatened employees at Twitter with imprisonment for not complying with the requests.
  • In Nigeria, human rights groups have called for greater transparency into the government’s agreement to reestablish domestic Twitter operations after a 222-day ban. Nigeria blocked Twitter from domestic operations after the company deleted President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet that many interpreted as a call for violence against the Igbo ethnic group. The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project in Nigeria — a MacArthur Foundation-funded group — has insinuated that Twitter’s reinstatement could come with terms that infringe on freedom of expression.
  • And in Turkey, Twitter has received tens of thousands of legal requests for censorship. Twitter complied with 42% of these demands in the first half of 2021. It also withheld around 2,600 accounts, meaning people in Turkey couldn’t see the content posted by those users. President Tayyip Erdogan also has a long track record of imprisoning journalists.

Musk doesn’t seem to have the appetite to address these types of infringements on free speech. In a TED talk yesterday, Musk said Twitter should follow the laws of the countries in which it operates. (That has its merits — after all, Silicon Valley dictating speech principles to the rest of the world isn’t exactly “democratic” either.) Musk said he takes issue with Twitter “going beyond that, and having it be unclear who’s making what changes to who and to where, having tweets sort of mysteriously be promoted and demoted with no insight into what’s going on, having a black box algorithm on some things and not for other things.”

There’s one way of reading Musk’s statements that makes them consistent: Twitter could simply leave countries that demand censorship. That’s extremely unlikely, though a private company would have more leeway to do so. Then again, it also appears increasingly unlikely that Musk will succeed at buying Twitter in the first place. His surprise proposal at least got us all talking about free speech and what Twitter can do to increase transparency. Maybe Musk will pull a “see, that’s all I wanted in the first place” when it all blows over.

— Hirsh Chitkara (email | twitter)

In Washington

The Department of Homeland Security launched an investigation into TikTok for allegedly hosting CSAM, according to a report from the Financial Times. The report suggests TikTok allowed illegal content to enter the public feed in part because its content moderators were too overwhelmed with the volume of material to keep up.

Two House Democrats requested extensive records from facial recognition program ID.me, which is used by the IRS and others. In the letter, Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Rep. Jim Clyburn said they had “serious concerns about the efficacy, privacy, and security of ID.me’s technology ... being used to verify the identities of millions of Americans seeking to access essential government services.”

Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine is hoping a superior court will reconsider its decision to dismiss his antitrust case against Amazon.

A government advisory group warned that hackers have the ability to target fossil fuel infrastructure. The Department of Energy, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the FBI warned that certain bad actors seem to have “capability to gain full system access to multiple” types of industrial control devices.

In the states

New York will soon require crypto companies to pay for their own regulatory supervision. Banks and insurance companies are already required to do so in the state. However, some leaders in the crypto space have criticized the move as unnecessarily burdening startups, which could reduce innovation in the sector.

Amazon will add a 5% fuel and inflation surcharge on top of current fulfillment fees, starting April 28. Earlier this week, Fed governor Lael Brainard said “getting inflation down is going to be our most important task.”

Yelp, Citigroup, Apple, Match Group and Bumble are all expanding employee benefits for abortion access. In some cases the companies will pay for employees in states with restricted abortion access to travel elsewhere. Yelp’s Chief Diversity Officer Miriam Warren told the Wall Street Journal: “When we’re talking about women’s advancement in their careers, trying to diversify boardrooms to see more women in them, and you look at these restrictions, they are absolutely intertwined in a way that I think is very damaging.”


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On Protocol

Salesforce Chief Impact Officer Suzanne DiBianca explained how the company plans to reduce absolute emissions over the next decade, in a Q&A with Protocol.

Ethereum developers are testing a new mechanism for verifying blockchain transactions. The new system could arrive as soon as the fall. It has the potential to address some of the environmental concerns facing crypto, as the network verification process would use dramatically less energy.

If you’re still wondering about the whole Elon Musk-Twitter situation, check out this explainer that promises to answer almost all of your questions.

Around the world

The Treasury Department claims The Lazarus Group, a North Korea-based hacker group, is behind the $622 million Axie Infinity hack last month. The department traced the funds to a wallet controlled by the group, and blockchain analysis firm Elliptic claims the group managed to successfully launder 18% of the stolen funds.

The Shanghai COVID lockdowns are likely to impact supply chains for devices from Apple, Dell and Lenovo, analysts told Reuters. Apple suppliers including Pegatron Corp and Quanta Computer shut down plants as they contend with China’s zero-COVID policies.

Tencent said it would update its gaming apps to block any content not approved by the government. China only recently began granting video game licenses after a nine-month suspension. President Xi has scrutinized video game addiction among China’s youth and prioritized programs that limit the time spent playing games and monitor content.

In data

60%: That’s how much global sales of AI chips grew between 2020 and 2021, when the market reached $35.9 billion. Chip startups have sprung up to address the growing demand for raw computational power.

The people’s search engine

A hot take that’s been circulating recently: Reddit is a better search engine than Google. One of the most viral blog posts on this topic noticed, “the only people who don’t know that are the team at Reddit, who can’t be bothered to build a decent search interface.” Well, that may soon be changing: Reddit announced a bunch of new features on Thursday that will make its forums more easily searchable directly within the platform. The company also said it has made the results page easier to skim.


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Thanks for reading, see you Monday.

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