Elon guts Twitter, Google shuts down Hangouts, and tech layoffs continue

A German law requiring social media platforms to respond immediately to reports of hate speech – and in some cases to remove illegal speech within 24 hours of it being brought to their attention – looks set to provide an early test of whether Twitter, owned by Elon Musk, will face significant legal consequences for how recklessly it runs the company.

Since the self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” took over Twitter in late October and has embarked on mass layoffs and sweeping policy changes (including simply this weekendlifting the permanent suspension of former US President Trump), there is concern high among legislators and social media users that Twitter could degenerate into a hellish environment with little-to-no content moderation under its new staff-wielding, bullshit-loving billionaire.

The thing is, some content moderation laws apply to Twitter internationally – and Germany has one: The Social Networks Enforcement Act, commonly referred to as NetzDG (a shortened version of its full German name), allows for fines of up to € 50 million for failure to comply with reports to remove illegal hate speech.

But given Musk’s massive layoffs at Twitter — and a number of high-profile resignations since he took over, including the departure of the former head of trust and safety, Joel Roth — it is not clear how much core content moderation expertise and resources are left in-house to be able to meet various existing regulatory requirements affecting businesses in international markets such as Germany and India.

According to some estimates, only hundreds of employees remain at Twitter from a previous number of about 7,500 after Musk’s “hardcore” ultimatum to staff last week.

Entire international offices were reportedly destroyed, quickly attracting the attention of lawmakers – such as in Spain, where dozens of staff were reported to have been laid off, prompting the labor minister to a tweet warning the company earlier this month about the need to comply with local labor laws (which it followed up by saying the labor inspectorate was acting on the case after complaints from unions).

Staff in Germany were also among Twitter’s international layoffs – with a local union reporting earlier this month that a large number of software engineers received Musk’s infamous “agree to be hardcore or resign” email late last week. Also last week Reuters reported remarks by a German government spokesman – who said he was watching Twitter’s developments with “increasing concern”.

A specialist IT law firm in Germany, JunIT Rechtsanwälte, is due to hear an injunction procedure against Twitter this Thursday. He accuses the company of failing to act on hate speech reports and removing illegal content as required by the NetzDG law.

The firm’s founder and managing partner, Chan-jo Jun, tweeted a “save the date” earlier this month — saying Twitter would have to answer for its inaction on hate speech reports at a public hearing where he said it would apply to foreclose on the entire platform.

Under German law, many things can qualify as illegal hate speech – sharing Nazi symbols or denying the Holocaust, for example – as it has some of the strictest laws against hate speech in the Western world.

So it’s clear that if Musk is looking to implement a purely American-centric flavor of free speech on Twitter everywhere — and/or he simply doesn’t have enough content moderation staff and adequate resources to respond to reports of illegal content – ​​this puts it on a direct collision course with German law to begin with.

The NetzDG Act entered into force in Germany in 2017 — and was further reinforced mid 2020when the German parliament agreed to impose a reporting obligation on platforms, requiring them to report certain types of “criminal content” to the Federal Criminal Police Service.

While a further reform of the law last year focused on strengthening users’ rights by increasing transparency on platforms – requiring tech firms to hand over details of takedowns to researchers, among other changes.

Although the NetzDG has been in place for several years in Germany, it remains the subject of controversy – with critics arguing that its existence has a chilling effect on online free speech, encouraging social media companies to reduce their risk and block users too much on social media. content.

At the same time, for years the content moderation joke for Twitter was for users of the platform in markets outside of Germany who wanted a quick escape from the online hate that flourished on Twitter in the earlier pre-Musk years — when its previous leadership allowed a toxic flowering of American white supremacy and neo-Nazi speech through a lackluster and inconsistent enforcement of claimed community standards — was to relocate to Germany in the settings and clean up all of this toxic speech, since Twitter at least followed Germany’s rules for the language of hate.

It would therefore be quite ironic now if the German law is the main (only?) legal tool available to reprimand Musk for removing content moderation norms on Twitter right now. (A Europe-wide digital services law, which also aims to regulate illegal downloading of content, comes into effect next February at the earliest).

That’s a big “if” though. Because one pressing question for international regulators is whether Musk will pay any attention to compliance with speech-related laws, or any laws outside the U.S. (Also, concern is growing in the U.S. over Musk-Twitter Compliance with FTC Consent Decree — leading to a “shot across the bow” statement. earlier this month from the US regulator.)

Back in October, messaging platform Telegram was hit with several fines by Germany’s NetzDG totaling around €5 million — for breaches of requirements to provide channels for users to report illegal hate speech and failing to appoint a local representative who to obtain documents with legally binding effect — a level of punishment that seems unlikely to cause Musk any more sleepless nights than he’s already getting buying Twitter.

Although, on paper at least, the German law allows for greater penalties for violations — which could add up for an ad platform that has seen major advertisers flee since the Musk takeover, adding to major money worries.

Still, another question international regulators may soon be forced to face is how (or even if) they can collect fines and enforce legal consequences against a “self-governing” Twitter — if, for example, Musk pulls all employees from their markets and leaves no local entities to be served.

What is their path to actually enforcing compliance?

So a nightmare scenario for international regulators is surely Musk’s willful non-compliance – leaving them with a choice between letting him get away with publicly flouting their rules or being forced to essentially punish domestic Twitter users by issuing a ban on the service and trying to block access in their own markets (to the extent that this is even possible in rich regions like Europe where users can use VPNs to bypass geoblocks etc.).

Politically, banning the service would likely be very unpopular to instigate — and would be easily trolled by Musk as outrageous censorship — leaving lawmakers in a bind.

Therefore, quickly tweeted threats from international regulatory bodies to ban Twitter (like the one embedded below) may prove quite hollow in the coming weeks and months (and beyond…) if none of these entities can followed and in fact enforcement against disrespectful rule breakers.

(Another case that seems instructive here is Clearview AI — which is facing multiple sanctions from European data protection regulators over recent months (but it’s not so clear whether any of these fines will actually be collected, as the US firm continues to deny that it broke any rules, or even that these European laws apply to its business.)

The German court hearing looming for Twitter this week is just one early example of the unfolding legal ramifications of Musk’s takeover of Twitter. But it looks like one to watch — both to see how (or indeed if) Musk-Twitter reacts to the lawsuit and the lawsuit, and to any parking fines that could follow if there’s a finding of lapses in removing speech of hate on NetzDG.

One thing is clear: Regulators everywhere should brace themselves for a bumpy ride as Musk drives the Twitter car off the gold mine.

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