As the Clock Winds Down to the DSA Deadline This Summer, the EU’s Scrutiny of Twitter Continues
As messy as the process was for Elon Musk, Twitter’s owner, and CEO up until last month, to purchase the social media giant last year, his first year hasn’t been any smoother. His acquisition of the company essentially coincided with the start of new digital content law from the European Union, and subsequently has faced significant criticism and scrutiny from the bloc’s top regulators.
Discourse concerning these new regulations for online intermediaries from the EU had been laid out as early as July 2022, and just after the sale of Twitter closed at the end of October, the Digital Market Act (DMA) went into force on November 1, and the Digital Services Act (DSA) went into force on November 16.
While the DMA is unlikely to affect Twitter greatly, the DSA will inevitably impact Twitter profoundly when all designated intermediaries must comply in August at the end of the summer. This has already placed the company and its illustrious CEO under the microscope in the months since, and will continue to do the remaining half of the year. The DSA will go into effect for all in February 2024, while platforms to be affected by the DMA have until March 2024 to comply.
The aim of these new regulations is to create a safer space that protects the rights of online users and to ensure a more level playing field both within the EU and around the world. These rules intend to counter illegal content; inhibit the publication of and alert users to misinformation, which the EU defines as, “false or misleading content shared without harmful intent though the effects can still be harmful”; reduce the spread of disinformation, defined as “false or misleading content that is spread with an intention to deceive or secure economic or political gain and which may cause public harm”; and protect users and their private information, particularly minors. The primary method by which they hope to accomplish this is by enforcing companies to be accountable for their own services and content by providing their own moderators, creating safeguards to protect active users, and requiring transparency for algorithmic recommendations.
Musk came under fire with his promotion for avenues of free speech on Twitter, largely due to fear of increased spread of disinformation across the forum. While Musk has met numerous times with top EU tech regulator Thierry Breton and has given assurance that the EU and Twitter are in congruence and that the latter will fully comply with these laws, there is serious doubt and speculation concerning whether Twitter is even capable of complying to the new rules laid out in DSA.
In an effort to mitigate a reported $3 billion negative cashflow, Musk conducted several waves of mass layoffs, accompanied by large amounts of exits from the company as well, which has left an estimated 1,500 employees, roughly 80% of the original 7,500 when the now CEO acquired the social media service. This is a number that Musk has failed to be transparent about, as reports at times have conflicted with his own numbers, though this is not surprising as he had also stated the layoffs would cease after the initial departure of nearly 50% of those on staff. This has left many regulators in the EU among others questioning Twitter’s ability to properly moderate its content as the layoffs have left less than 550 full-time engineers as well as a nearly fully depleted safety & security, and product & design teams. Breton has reportedly strongly encouraged Musk to hire more human moderators to ensure Twitter fulfills its legal obligation by August. This scrutiny has been compounded by shortcomings in Twitter’s communication with the European Commission in reporting its active users for designation earlier this year, a report that was late and incomplete.
The Commission released its designations for the enforcement of DSA, which determines the level of totality a company would be subject to: those companies being subject to all regulations identified as very large online platforms (VLOPs) and very large online search engines (VLOSEs). Twitter was designated as a VLOP, as it met the requisite of 45M active users in Europe, 10% of the population. Others who met this designation were Amazon, Apple AppStore, TikTok, and Wikipedia. While companies who violated the EU’s previous digital content legislation, GDPR, are subject to fines of up to 4% of global annual revenue, violators of the DSA would be subject to fines of up to 6% and bans of certain services for repeat offenders.
Breton announced at the beginning of June that Twitter had volunteered to be subject to stress tests during a visit from EU regulators to Silicon Valley, to determine its level of compliance. Also included in the visit would be other companies who have met the 'very large' designation: Google and Meta Networks, along with OpenAI, who is likely to be subject to AI related regulations from the EU in the near future.
Breton described his visit to Twitter as “constructive” and stated that the social media company is taking it “very seriously”, though he did not give any indication as to whether Twitter passed or failed the test. He also mentioned that more companies, including TikTok, will be facing similar stress tests this coming month. While no fines or punishments are to be dealt out as a result of these evaluations, it is to be expected that Breton will be laying down the law, as he was quoted when discussing his visit saying, “I am the enforcer”.