Can Elon Musk take on the tech censors?

Is Elon Musk a match for the tech censors?

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

After three centuries of failing to assert power over the printed press, the House of Commons is finding the digital world easier to conquer. The Online Safety Bill now going through parliament will give ministers the power to decide what can and can’t be said online by banning what they regard as ‘harmful’. The word is not very well defined – which, of course, gives sweeping powers to the government regulators who will define it. It will be one of the most ambitious censorship laws that the world has ever seen.

Enter Elon Musk. His $44 billion takeover of Twitter is intended, he says, not to make money but to defend free speech. His rationale – combined with his criticisms of ‘woke’ films on Netflix – has caused horror in certain quarters in America about Twitter lurching to the right. No. 10 is nervous too, reminding Musk that new UK laws will oblige him to ‘protect users from harm’ – by which they mean ‘protecting’ them from reading the wrong kind of tweets. If Musk is a ‘free speech fundamentalist’ – his words – then Britain may be his first battleground.

The new UK law certainly means business. Companies that publish ‘harmful’ content could be liable for fines of up to 10 per cent of their income – i.e. billions of pounds. This is essentially designed to terrify Silicon Valley into upping its own censorship. Until Musk came along it was working nicely. Government critics like the far-left Novara Media, the Socialist Workers party and even David Davis, a Tory backbencher, have had their videos and accounts suspended.

Such is the nature of bot censorship. Millions of words and thousands of hours of videos are uploaded every minute – so computer algorithms are used to scan and assess if they come close to crossing a line. If in doubt, they are taken down – or just not shown to other users. Readers don’t miss what they don’t see, and those who publish often don’t know that they have been censored. In this way, a conversation that looks like it is free and fair can be curated by bots programmed to avoid all kinds of hot topics.

This is what Musk says he, as Twitter owner, will no longer tolerate. It’s time to go public, he says, by publishing the algorithms used to censor certain messages – so everyone can see the kind of decisions being taken behind closed doors. Until now, Silicon Valley had been quite happy to go along with political pressure. When Twitter suspended Donald Trump’s account, it was a sign of its raw power and unaccountability: it was able to remove a sitting president from the public debate. While Trump says he doesn’t want to return to the platform (for now), it’s a fair bet that Musk would have him back.

Britain is the first democracy to seek to regulate social media and if it succeeds it will be in part due to the abject failure of Silicon Valley to defend its own independence – as newspapers have done for so long. The truth is that tech giants never cared much about news and still reject the idea that they are ‘publishers’. The Mark Zuckerbergs of this world have no devotion to journalism. They just want to make money, and there’s little to be made in political reporting. By becoming government collaborators (‘working in partnership’ as Facebook likes to say) they keep their near-monopolistic power.

This is why Musk matters. The UK government plans to turn tech chiefs into media moguls by not just allowing them but ordering them to censor, edit and curate what billions of users see every day. Never has a newspaper proprietor or television chief had this much power, and a huge amount hinges on how these new moguls respond. In Musk, we have someone who may well decide to resist Nadine Dorries’s Online Safety Bill and take his chances with the fines that she threatens. Twitter may end up one of the few areas in cyberspace where public debate will not be constrained by government rules.

Of course, it’s quite possible that Musk won’t care about the UK and tell Twitter executives here to toe the line. He might soon think twice about his love of free speech if real racists, thugs and terrorists start using Twitter as a platform. It’s one thing to talk about free expression, another to defend Tommy Robinson. The line between what is acceptable to publish and what is not must always be drawn somewhere – and drawing it anywhere means taking fire. Will Musk be prepared to stand his ground?

Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon and now owns the Washington Post, has raised another point. Musk sells many of his Teslas to China, a country that sees political favours as the price of doing business. What if it was suggested to Musk that Tesla production may move at a faster pace in Shanghai if the Dalai Lama didn’t get so much coverage, or if the misdeeds of Hong Kong protestors were amplified? And would we have any way of knowing if China was exerting its influence?

Already the news we see digitally is edited in invisible ways. As an editor, I make regular forays into this world to try to find out where (and why) The Spectator comes up against the censorship bots. YouTube has a blacklist of ‘misleading or deceptive’ claims liable to be censored. You cannot say, for example, that voting machine glitches decided the fate of a swing state in the last US election. The next question is obvious: what about saying that Russian bots swung the 2016 election for Trump? Is that also banned? We don’t know because YouTube’s full blacklist is secret. When the rules are invisible, can anyone be sure they are fair?

Even Musk’s offer to publish the algorithms that Twitter uses to promote or punish various speech may not be much use. Such codes are complex and machine learning means even those who programmed the algorithms aren’t quite sure what the effects will be. The sophistication of bot censorship has gone far beyond what policymakers are able to understand.

Ms Dorries counters that publications like The Spectator need not worry about all this because her law would exempt us. This is, in itself, pretty worrying: why should free speech protection be guaranteed to favoured publications but not to the average citizen? It is in itself a form of leverage that government has over the press, because it can remove this status if it chooses. Favouritism creeps in. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has already refused to take critical journalists with her on a trip to Rwanda.

In theory, Ofcom would make decisions and not government. In practice, the head of the regulator is chosen by the government and can be overruled by it. ‘What the PM has not done,’ says one cabinet member, ‘is imagine what this bill would be like under someone like Jeremy Corbyn – and what it would mean for journalists.’

Another point that politicians have not quite grasped is that, when government tries to censor and control online content, it sends a chill across the whole publishing world. A quarter of those who read Spectator articles online come via social media. We would be incentivised not to publish stories that may displease the censorship bots.

As a former journalist, Boris Johnson certainly ought to be worried about passing laws that censure dissenting voices. But those who have tried to warn him of the terrible effects of his Online Safety Bill say he is genuinely clueless. The Prime Minister is apparently not even aware that Facebook publishes news, let alone that it is now Britain’s number one source of news after the broadcasters.

At the start of his takeover bid, Musk referred to Twitter as ‘the public town square’. This sums up the conundrum. What to do if the public sphere has only one private owner? The only option is to hope that the owner is a good one, who will remember H.L. Mencken’s dictum that the relationship of a publisher to a politician should be that of a dog to a lamppost. Musk says that he is this man. Those who seek to protect press freedom in the digital age will have to hope that he’s right.

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