Texas and Musk know you don’t really want free speech
Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! For all the talk of free speech, everyone wants to take something down on social media, so today I’m looking into why we talk too much about what’s going to get left up. Plus, what’s next for those challenging Texas’ law, my sitdown with the European lawmaker behind the DMA, and Zuckerberg on mobile.
What goes up can come down
This morning, Elon Musk said — in a tweet, of course — that he’s pausing his $44 billion Twitter takeover while he looks into the platform’s spam and bots, which he wants to get rid of. Then, with the company’s stock price sufficiently rattled, he added he was “still committed” to the deal. One the one hand: shrug emoji, I guess. On the other, it’s a reminder that the bid Musk has gotten everyone to treat as being about free speech is really just about who’s in charge — and, yes, what kinds of things he’s ultimately going to want to take down.
These sorts of questions fray the nerves of tech-policy experts and social media lawyers, folks who have already had a tough week dealing with similar questions of quote-unquote free speech in a very different context.
- You see, the Texas social media experiment — the one where Twitter and Facebook have to figure out how to live without the legal foundation they’ve relied on for 25 years — also began this week.
- Now, Texas users can launch lawsuits over being silenced for their “viewpoints” — whatever that means.
Can we talk like adults here for one second and admit that neither Texas nor Musk are really planning a free speech revolution — and probably shouldn’t be?
- Free speech is great, but all you have to do is look in your spam folder to realize that “no moderation whatsoever” is a terrible way for a service to operate.
- Musk knows this. After all, he keeps adding more parentheticals to his vision: Free speech! (Except for illegal content, of course.) (And bots and spam that might get in the way of monetization.) (Well, and whatever Europe wants, duh.) (Plus the rest of the globe.) (And nothing that’s “otherwise just destructive to the world.”)
- Meanwhile, the Texas law that a federal court has allowed to proceed, known as HB 20, actually permits blocking malware, illegal obscenity and legal porn while demanding social media services put up the kinds of platform policies they already fill with their hand-picked notions of what is forbidden.
That permission for takedowns sort of gives away the real goal. No one wants a game with no rules; they just want rules to help them win.
- Musk’s worries about destructive content, after all, sound like the platform’s current, much-maligned and liberal-ish fixation on the most harmful speech.
- It’s just that he wants to be the one to decide what’s destructive, rather than content moderators who, Musk seems to think, don’t appreciate his dankest memes and interest in hearing from Donald Trump.
- The same was true with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who said when he signed HB 20 that it was a response to “a dangerous movement by some social media companies to silence conservative ideas and values.”
No one’s really shocked that powerful people manipulate popular notions when they want to bend the rules for themselves. Yet plenty of people persist in describing Texas and Musk as having a free-speech approach that’s just going to balance out MSNBC with Trump and a few more QAnon believers.
- It matters because leaning into the bedrock constitutional notion of free speech might mean overestimating how much the conservative U.S. judiciary is willing to do about the Texas law.
- And it fails to notice the way Texas might want to control abortion information or LGBTQ+ rights, or that Musk might want to keep the lid on Tesla shorts — just to grab a few contentious issues that could now be seen as legally murky or just-too-harmful by the people in charge.
Ultimately, as Texas claims the mantle of free speech to tell private companies what content to leave up, users should know that, in the social new experiment, people with power will want certain things taken down — and they should ask what those things are going to be.
A version of this story appeared in Source Code; subscribe here.
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States can officially begin applying for a piece of the $45 billion in high-speed broadband funding set aside by the bipartisan infrastructure law. Applications are due in August, and the NTIA says it will likely begin awarding partial funding by late November.
The FBI told the Israeli government it had purchased Pegasus spyware to assist in investigations in a 2018 letter recently obtained by the New York Times. The FBI said at the time that it planned to use the technology “for the collection of data from mobile devices for the prevention and investigation of crimes and terrorism, in compliance with privacy and national security laws.” According to Times, though, the FBI never actually used the tool beyond testing.
After months of delay, the Senate confirmed Alvaro Bedoya to become the FTC’s fifth commissioner. Now Amazon, Microsoft, device makers, ISPs, anyone who uses data or AI, any company that wants to merge and firms with workers should buckle up.The FTC is also looking at putting ed tech at the center of children’s privacy enforcement and cracking down on fake influencer reviews.
In the states
Virginia is set to scrap its ban on police use of facial recognition, and California could be next. Amid rising crime rates, states and local governments are reconsidering the bans, some of which were put in place as recently as 2019.
A MESSAGE FROM CHAMBER OF PROGRESS
New polling shows that American voters do not see regulating tech companies as a priority. Their top concerns are strengthening the national economy (38%), followed by controlling inflation (37%). By contrast, only 5% of respondents prioritized regulating tech companies.
Mark Zuckerberg spoke exclusively with Protocol’s Janko Roettgers about his metaverse plans and why this moment is similar to Facebook’s transition to mobile. You know, the period when Facebook made all those decisions that antitrust enforcers are asking the company to pay for today.
Andreas Schwab told Protocol why we’re going to have even more choice screens and why Big Tech needs to think seriously about spinoffs. The member of the European Parliament who led negotiations over EU’s landmark tech competition rules was in Washington meeting with U.S. lawmakers, and said the public may not know how far Congress’ own push has gotten.
NetChoice and CCIA are set to file an emergency application with the Supreme Court as early as today, sources told Protocol. The two industry groups will ask the justices to vacate the Fifth Circuit’s stay on the Texas social media law and are seeking amicus briefs in the case.
The list of tech companies offering to cover worker travel for abortions is growing. Protocol is keeping tabs on them here.
In the media, culture and metaverse
Researchers were left stranded after SafeGraph pulled access to data on abortion clinics in light of the Supreme Court’s leaked Roe decision. “I think it’s incredibly valuable to help us understand how people are responding to laws like SB 8 or overturning of Roe v. Wade,” one University of North Carolina researcher told Protocol.
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In the C-suite
Twitter fired two top executives, including Kayvon Beykpour, head of Twitter’s Consumer division, and Bruce Falck, general manager of Revenue. Beykpour tweeted that he was let go while on parental leave. "The truth is that this isn’t how and when I imagined leaving Twitter, and this wasn’t my decision," Beykpour wrote.
Up to 15%: Musk said he’s looking for confirmation “that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users” on Twitter, but a study found in 2017 found that between 9% and 15% of active accounts might be bots.
A MESSAGE FROM CHAMBER OF PROGRESS
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No Season Two
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Thanks for reading — see you Monday!