OTTAWA — On the day billionaire Elon Musk closed his $44 billion (US) deal to buy Twitter, he took to the social media platform he now owns and wrote, “The bird is released.
The self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” was referring to his belief that Twitter should be a platform where everyone can say what they want, unhindered by the anonymous “activist groups” he claims to have sought to control the content of the site and to jeopardize freedom of expression.
Since then, Musk’s chaotic reign as Twitter CEO has been marked by mass layoffs, announcements of expansion and billing for account verification, and a promise to delay action on content moderation until until he convenes a “council” on the subject.
But its takeover also comes as Canada prepares to introduce what promises to be a highly controversial online safety bill, which would impose hard and fast rules on social media platforms to curb the increase in harmful content littering the internet.
“When it comes to online harm, (Musk’s leadership) is going to be a monstrous implication because of the changes he’s making without making policy changes,” a source close to the company told The Star.
“Looks like he’s just doing s – on the fly.”
The source said Canada’s online regulation legislative package – which currently includes two bills that would respectively regulate streaming sites and online platforms that share information – is “arguably the biggest sequel in the world”. .
That means Musk’s vision for Twitter could have “big implications” for both the platform and this country, the source said.
Canadian lawmakers are already pondering the battle ahead.
“The reality is that Elon Musk and his takeover of Twitter have been disastrous, not only for the utter inconsistency of Twitter, but the fact that he has – in a very real sense through his words and actions – helped promote hatred,” said NDP Heritage Critic Peter Julian, who will be one of the MPs tasked with reviewing the online safety bill when it is introduced.
“The fact that they cut many jobs designed to fight hate through Twitter, and their deliberate promotion of misinformation and hate, is going to have an even bigger impact.”
According to a US-based research institute, the use of the N-word on Twitter climbed over 500% the day after Musk took office, which the platform’s head of security, Yoel Roth, attributed to a bunch of bad actors.
Roth also clarified that despite the thousands of Twitter employees affected by the layoffs, only 15% of the company’s trust and safety team members were affected and said that “basic moderation capabilities of the company remain in place”.
Musk said he acquired Twitter to prevent it from splitting into “far-right and far-left echo chambers that are generating more hate and dividing our society.” He noted that despite his assertion that all topics should be able to be discussed on the platform, the site “cannot become a free-for-all hellscape” without consequences. The billionaire has promised to create a content moderation council with “very diverse viewpoints” and will only make moderation decisions once this group is formed.
But it also fired employees who were essential to ensuring Twitter’s fair and safe operation, such as Twitter’s Ethical AI team, which looked into ethical AI tools and algorithmic transparency.
The Star’s attempts to solicit comment from Twitter Canada for this story resulted in rejected emails; the company’s head of communications in Canada, Cam Gordon, was also fired. Two other top executives, Paul Burns, managing director of Twitter’s Canadian operations, and Michele Austin, head of public policy for the United States and Canada, were not spared the cuts.
Liberal MP and member of the House of Commons heritage committee, Anthony Housefather, said Musk’s approach to running Twitter could “complicate” discussions between Ottawa and the company, adding that it is now even more important for Canada to present its legislation.
Laura Scaffidi, spokeswoman for Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s office, said the minister hopes to “work collaboratively and constructively with the platforms on this important issue.”
Emily Laidlaw, a cybersecurity law expert at the University of Calgary and a consultant on pending legislation in Canada, says Musk’s tenure so far can only be seen as a “gift” to the federal government.
“All the varying and different ways that Musk has unraveled the things Twitter has done and continues to make all these changes that have very immediately palpable impacts on our use of Twitter just shows that we need legislation here,” she told the Star.
Taylor Owen, an associate professor at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy, who has also weighed in on the upcoming bill, says Canada should consider how other jurisdictions handled Musk’s “convulsions”. The European Union, for example, passed a Digital Services Act last summer that would require tech giants to monitor their platforms for harmful content.
Indeed, when Musk first tweeted that the bird was “released”, Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for Internal Markets, had a scathing clapback at hand.
“In Europe the bird will fly by our rules,” he wrote.
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