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French regulator warns Twitter of legal duty to moderate misinformation, hate

Nov. 22, 2022 Updated Tue., Nov. 22, 2022 at 11:26 a.m.

 (Tribune News Service)
(Tribune News Service)
By Annabelle Timsit Washington Post

France’s digital regulator has asked Twitter to confirm that it can still meet its legal obligations to moderate harmful content and misinformation as the company undergoes a major reorganization, including layoffs of half the company’s workforce, under the ownership of Elon Musk.

The head of Arcom, the French regulator for digital and audiovisual communication, expressed “deep concern” in a letter to Twitter about how the chaos and staff erosion that have characterized Musk’s first weeks as owner and CEO since his $44 billion purchase of Twitter last month could affect the company’s ability to “maintain a safe environment for users of its service” in France.

Roch-Olivier Maistre, president of Arcom, noted in the letter, dated Friday, that Twitter “is one of the most used online platforms in France,” and said the turmoil at the company “raises systemic issues regarding the faithfulness of democratic debate and the public safety.”

He gave Twitter until Thursday to respond to Arcom’s concerns.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post about the letter.

It comes as authorities in the United States and Europe vow to take a closer look at what is happening at Twitter, amid reports that a skeleton staff is operating the platform, and as Musk reinstates controversial accounts that were known for spreading harmful content – including those of former president Donald Trump and the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson – but whose suspensions led to criticism that Twitter was repressing its users’ freedom of speech.

Twitter, the letter said, is responsible for fighting against “the manipulation of information” and “the dissemination of online hate speech” on its platform under French law, and Arcom is responsible for ensuring that Twitter adheres to its obligations, including on transparency. At the same time, Twitter should respect its users’ freedom of expression, it said.

If Twitter fails to implement measures to moderate online hate, the regulator has the power to put the platform on notice and, in some cases, impose fines of up to $20.5 million, or 6 percent of its global revenue for the previous fiscal year.

After Musk completed his takeover of Twitter in late October, he appointed himself CEO, fired top executives and cut half of the company’s workforce. He said he would form a “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints” that would make future decisions on content moderation and suspended accounts.

The situation has affected Twitter’s European operations: Over the weekend, the head of Twitter for France, Damien Viel, announced that he was leaving the company. He did not clarify whether he quit or was laid off.

“It’s over,” Viel tweeted.

The letter from Arcom highlighted reports of the layoffs, and questioned whether Twitter could meet its obligations under French and E.U. law with a reduced workforce, asking for clarification on “the short-term evolution of the human and technological resources devoted to compliance with these obligations.”

Beyond the impact of the recent layoffs, the regulator also said it wants to ensure that Twitter can fully implement the Digital Services Act, a sweeping piece of legislation from the European Union that came into force last week and imposes transparency restrictions on tech companies.

Fueling speculation about the European response to Musk’s takeover of Twitter was – appropriately enough – a tweet, after the purchase was finalized, from Thierry Breton, European commissioner for the internal market, in which Breton said Twitter would have to adhere to European rules.

In an editorial for the New York Times published last week, Yoel Roth, the former head of trust and safety at Twitter, wrote that “Twitter remains bound by the laws and regulations of the countries in which it operates,” which could complicate Musk’s professed wish for free speech to drive more decisions at Twitter. “Regulators have significant tools at their disposal to enforce their will on Twitter and on Mr. Musk,” Roth added, citing the E.U.’s Digital Services Act.

The departure of Roth and other employees tasked with security and compliance at Twitter after Musk’s takeover prompted the Federal Trade Commission in the United States to warn that it was prepared to step in to verify that the company was respecting the terms of an agreement to ensure data security and privacy for users of the platform.

As The Post reported, Musk told Twitter employees in an email that the company “will do whatever it takes to adhere to both the letter and spirit” of its agreement with the FTC. “The same goes for any other government regulatory matters where Twitter operates,” he added.

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