Is Freedom of expression better off with Elon Musk controlling Twitter?

By Rob van den Hoven van Genderen


On April 25th, Twitter’s board of directors accepted Musk’s offer of $54.20 per share, or $44 billion, for total control of the company. Although there are some hurdles to pass in legal administration there is a big chance that Elon Musk is directing the course of Twitter for the future. He advocates absolute freedom of expression, while Twitter currently still closely monitors the statements of its users. What will be best for the freedom of expression? Do we want the village square back where everyone can say what is on his /her/gender-free mind?


I commented the issue on BNR and will give this personal view also in this column. In a coming article of “HP de Tijd” I also gave this opinion in a pro/contra discussion where the statement was “Moderation on Twitter is necessary”. The pro person was Paul Tang, MEP on behalf of the PvdA. He stated that social media are not different from other media and they bear the responsibility for editing. This mainly because of the vast impact of the platform and the risks that come with that, so you should mitigate certain risks. Of course, he is of the opinion that social media have a social mission. He further is positive about choosing different algorithms so one can choose a timeline where so called toxic disagreements are not visible.


My idea, concurring with Musk’s line of thinking, is that freedom of expression is valuable and should be countered by itself and the freedom to take notice of other opinions. I think that moderating is a form of censorship, in which the principle of adversarial procedure is completely excluded. Twitter is an open discussion platform and one should honour that. One could though limit this to the principle of “notice and take down” but avoiding early action and taken without proper research. This is one of the dangers to freedom of expression in a wide sense because platforms do not want to run any risk and are inclined to ban political or moral risky opinions as with Wilders and Trump. On the other hand, one could wonder if there is too little attention for freedom of expression, a concentration on misinformative opinions is a real risk as we certainly are confronted with in these critical times. It always is important to take cognizance of points of view that do not appeal to you and decide for yourself how to react. It would be better to go back to the old adage of “no message to the message”, be it under above mentioned. In a town square you will be corrected if you cross the line and that is how Twitter should work. Whether something is not acceptable in a legal sense is then up to the judge or the Public Prosecution Service. Also, the idea of Musk to give full transparency to the working of the algorithms and search and destroy bots on the platform is an improvement of the openness and trustworthiness of Twitter. One has to open platforms like this to all opinions without censoring. By giving users the choice between algorithms, you facilitate that they exclude certain opinions. If you don’t want to read unwelcome opinions, you always have a choice not to go on Twitter or close your eyes and ears to non-personal pleasing utterances. The danger of choosing different algorithms is that people just receive opinions they already agree upon and avoid all critical observations or discussions.


“Twitter is an open discussion platform and one should honour that.”


The current legal framework is increasingly based on moralism. Authorities are increasingly trying to protect the population against unpleasant opinions and behavior that are not necessarily punishable. That’s not in line with Musk’s and my ideas about a platform like Twitter. I think this is a dangerous development maybe more dangerous than the richest person on earth that promises a free platform to discuss anything without the profits that were essential for the former shareholders. But maybe that is a naïve position…


About the author
Robert van den Hoven van Genderen is professor AI Robotlaw at the
University of Lapland, director of the Centre for Law and Internet at the Law Faculty of the Vrije Universiteit and president of the Netherlands Association for AI & Robotlaw. Before his academic positions he worked a.o. as director Regulatory affairs in the Telecommunications industry.