Elon Musk is under renewed pressure from the US and EU over his ownership of Twitter, as regulators clamp down on the billionaire’s push to transform the social network into a freewheeling haven of free speech.
The European Commission on Wednesday threatened Musk with a ban unless Twitter abides by strict content moderation rules, as US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen indicated that Washington was reviewing his purchase of the social network.
The warning from Brussels came in a video call between Musk and Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner in charge of implementing the bloc’s digital rules, according to people with knowledge of the conversation.
Breton told Musk that Twitter must adhere to a checklist of rules, including ditching an “arbitrary” approach to reinstating banned users, pursuing disinformation “aggressively” and agreeing to an “extensive independent audit” of the platform by next year.
Musk was warned that unless he stuck to those rules Twitter risked infringing the EU’s new Digital Services Act, a new law that sets the global standard for how Big Tech must police content on the internet. Breton reiterated Twitter could face a Europe-wide ban or fines of up to 6 per cent of global turnover if it breached the law.
Twitter’s owner said repeatedly that he thought that the DSA was “very sensible”, said people briefed on the conversation, adding that he had read the legislation and thought it should be applied everywhere in the world. Musk has previously said Twitter would adhere to all relevant laws.
Among the EU’s demands is that Musk provides clear criteria on which users are at risk of being banned. Musk has reinstated Donald Trump’s account after holding a poll of users on whether the former US president should be allowed to return to the site.
In a blog post, Twitter said none of its policies had changed and that its trust and safety team remained “strong and well-resourced”, but added: “Our approach to policy enforcement will rely more heavily on de-amplification of violative content: freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.”
The company said it still sought to “promote and protect the public conversation” but that it had changed its “approach to experimentation” by undergoing more “public testing”.
Senior EU officials have expressed concerns over whether Twitter has enough staff to comply with the new rules after Musk fired more than half of its 7,500 workforce this month.
In the US, authorities’ scrutiny of Twitter appears to be focused on foreign ownership of the social media platform. In comments at a New York Times conference, Yellen mentioned the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US when asked about Twitter, saying it looked at transactions involving “foreign investment . . . to see if they create national security risk”.
The Treasury secretary added: “We don’t comment on work that’s in progress. But if there are such risks, it would be appropriate for Cfius to have a look.”
Securities filings show Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia rolled over 35mn shares, or 3.5 per cent of the total shares of the public Twitter, into the new private company as part of Musk’s $44bn buyout.
Kingdom Holding Company, an investment fund controlled by the prince, owns stakes in US companies, including Citigroup, Uber and Lyft, according to its website.
US president Joe Biden this month said Musk’s “co-operation” with other countries was “worthy of being looked at” by American authorities. While Yellen herself had previously dismissed the likelihood of such a probe, on Wednesday she said she had “misspoke”.
Additional reporting by Ian Johnston in London