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Elon Musk and the Gray of ‘Free Speech’


The internet as we know it is a constant act of choosing some speech over others.

Google and Microsoft decide which search results appear first and which ones are buried on Page 400. Twitter and Facebook often choose whether you might run across photos from your cousin’s engagement party or your elected representative’s tweets. Apple says yes or no to each app that is available in its store. Even not allowing spam to flood your inbox is a choice to shunt aside a kind of speech.

These decisions are choices about who gets to say what and where and to whom, and they are an inevitable and sometimes welcome part of the websites and apps where we spend our days.

In a New York Times column today, I looked at the knotty questions behind Elon Musk’s broad-strokes plan as Twitter’s next owner: He wants to remake it into a place for unfettered ideas to mostly roam free, as long as they don’t violate the law.

Follow-up questions for Musk: What if the speech violates the law in Germany or Turkey but not in the United States? What happens when Twitter and governments disagree over how to interpret laws of expression, including the First Amendment? Pornography is legal in the United States. It’s not allowed unconditionally now on Twitter, but will it be under Musk’s ownership? How about Chinese propaganda that undercuts accusations of human rights abuses and twists people’s views?

Social media company executives have learned that defending free speech is not simple in a complicated world where one person’s right to express himself may silence someone else or sow chaos and one person’s or government’s definition of free speech is out of bounds for another.

“Unrestricted free speech does not mean it’s a truer version of free speech. It just means you’re making an island and letting the boys run crazy like in ‘Lord of the Flies,’” said Kate Klonick, an assistant professor of law at St. John’s University. “A well-regulated and predictable speech environment is the best for free speech.”

Musk hasn’t officially taken over Twitter, and it’s too soon to know how he might alter the balance of policing on the site. Most social media companies, including former President Donald J. Trump’s Truth Social, exist along a vast spectrum of expression between almost-anything-goes and heavy-handed nannies. Musk may have in mind nudging Twitter more toward permissiveness, particularly when it comes to political expression that is protected under U.S. law.

Musk has also suggested that he might turbocharge some goals that Twitter has set for itself, including stamping out more accounts that tweet harmful automated posts and providing more transparency into the software formulas that the site uses to organize what we see there. Those ideas are less about freeing speech and more about constraining it effectively in users’ best interests.

My colleague Kate Conger said Monday during a Twitter Spaces conversation that some Twitter employees were excited (and others weren’t) about Musk giving them a clean slate on the 16-year-old company’s endless turmoil, including over the issue of free expression. Some tech executives and U.S. politicians believe that Musk will be a spark to give speech more breathing room.

Musk will soon have a chance to cast a fresh eye on Twitter, including the questions of which kinds of speech to prioritize and how the company might fulfill a potential that has always seemed just out of reach. Twitter is globally influential, but it has roughly one-tenth the users of Facebook and pulls in far less annual revenue than the Bed Bath & Beyond retail chain.

We all benefit when Twitter and other globally important means of communication and persuasion operate effectively as places to better understand our world and have our minds opened. How to get there is the hard part.

Hello to this squirrel hugging (I think?) a spear of broccoli.

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