Cross Country Checkup·Q&A

Stronger government regulation of social media companies could improve free speech, says expert

Taylor Owen, a member of the expert panel advising the Canadian government on online safety and regulating harmful content, says if Musk’s Twitter deal goes through, he could face pushback from regulators around the world.

Making social media safer 'can actually create a space where more people can speak': Taylor Owen

Elon Musk, CEO of electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, struck a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion US last Monday. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Social networking companies that bill themselves as "public squares" should be subject to government regulation that helps reduce harm against users, says media expert Taylor Owen.

Last Monday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk struck a deal to purchase Twitter for $44 billion US. The move will take the company private.

Musk, a self-described free speech absolutist, has yet to announce if he will make changes to the platform's rules. Twitter has come under fire in recent years over increased content moderation and the banning of high-profile figures, including former U.S. president Donald Trump.

"Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated," Musk said Monday in a statement posted on Twitter

Taylor Owen is an associate professor in the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. (Mary Lynk/CBC)

Increasingly, governments are looking to regulate the tech giants behind platforms like Twitter and Facebook. In April, the European Union reached a landmark deal to combat hate speech, misinformation and other harmful content on social media.

Owen, a member of the expert panel advising the Canadian government on online safety and regulating harmful content, says if Musk's Twitter deal goes through, he could face pushback from regulators around the world.

Owen is the director of the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University and he spoke with Cross Country Checkup producer Abby Plener. Here is part of that conversation.

What do we know so far, and what are some of the lingering questions? 

The biggest lingering question is whether this is actually going to go through. So I think that's still far from certain. This has to pass [U.S. Federal Trade Commission] approval, probably, around antitrust grounds and media consolidation issues. That's an open question of how the [U.S.] government is going to respond to this. 

We can speculate around his financial interest in doing it. Billionaires in the past have wanted control of media. That's not a new thing. But maybe there's some financial interest to his companies in controlling this means of communication. 

But the other element is how he's been talking about free speech. And he's sort of aligned himself with this community of people who are taking very absolutist lines on what free speech online should look like. A lot of that is a response to some of the more, I think, reasonable moderation policies that Twitter, Facebook and others have actually put in place to make their spaces safer. 

So if that's what he thinks, that this place needs less guardrails and less moderation, then I think Twitter could become a much more toxic place. 

Elon Musk’s Twitter deal prompts free speech debate

2 months ago
Duration 3:02
Calling himself a "free speech absolutist," Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover deal is reigniting the debate around freedom of speech on social media platforms. Some fear that under Musk’s ownership, Twitter could be exploited as a platform to spread disinformation and monitor critics.

Obviously, part of this conversation is sort of a dialogue about what is there to be fixed [at] Twitter. If you had to diagnose Twitter's problems, what would your diagnosis be? 

The main challenge with Twitter is that it is calibrated for speed of dissemination, for virality and for engagement. And it is immensely good at those things. So a single comment from a single person can easily, if it hits the right tone and the right audience, be seen by millions. And that's a really powerful thing.

The challenge is that calibration for engagement and emotional reaction — and sometimes anger and frustration — lead to more division in our public debate. It's not aligned with, sort of, healthy democratic discourse. 

So Twitter, I think, to their credit has been in some ways trying to push to change that calibration — to add more content moderation around speech that is harmful but maybe not illegal, to bring more transparency to the platform so more people can see how it's functioning. 

Slowly they've been doing things to make their platform a little less toxic, a little less racist, a little less divisive. But [Musk is] threatening to roll that back and that's a challenge. And if he does, then the question is who makes the rules of engagement? And in my view, it should be democratic governments. 

There can be harmful forms of speech that aren't illegal that we should be seeking to minimize in a democratic society. That's going to be up to governments to do it. And if [Musk] takes the guardrails off Twitter, which looks quite likely, I think it's going to hasten government's desire to step into this space. And there's a lot of things governments can do to make this space better, I think.

I read your piece in the Globe [and Mail] and you were arguing that regulation can help free speech. Why do you feel that way?

Free speech isn't just the right to say things. It's also the right to feel safe in the public sphere saying things…. What's ended up happening in the nature of our digital platforms is that the voices of people who harass and abuse and troll have been prioritized over the rights of the people that they are forcing off of these platforms. 

And so making a place safer — having better rules around those kinds of things, [whether] it's racist or toxic speech, or trolling or abuse — can actually create a space where more people can speak and feel safe speaking rather than less. 

And so that's been a real motivation for democratic governments to step into this space, I think responsibly, whether it be the EU, or the U.K. or Australia, who have all put in place new rules around how platforms need to treat harmful speech in their societies. And I think they've done it.

They often get, sort of, critiqued by these platforms as being against free speech, but I think it's the exact opposite. I think they're trying to ensure that the public square remains open to everybody who wants to speak, not just those that are loudest, or most aggressive, or harshest, or play with the algorithms most effectively, or purchase ads to target with the most money. 

Canada's in the process of figuring out right now. I'm involved in that process with the government, so I have my biases here, but I think we're late to this conversation in Canada and the government got it really wrong in their last attempt last year in how to do that. But they're now coming around and they're looking likely to propose something that looks a lot like what the EU just did. 

Tesla billionaire Elon Musk to buy Twitter for $44B

2 months ago
Duration 3:33
Elon Musk has reached an agreement to acquire Twitter for $44 billion US. Musk said it was his desire to ensure free speech on the social media platform that compelled him to take over the company.

Some people might just see this as a business story. Why should the average person who may not even use these platforms necessarily care about the ownership structure behind them and how they're regulated? 

Whether it's Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat or whatever it might be — whatever platform comes next — this is where a lot of our public democratic discourse happens. 

This is where, increasingly, we learn about the world, where we get our facts about others, where we learn about societies, where we communicate with other groups in society. 

And so how information circulates through it is really important for our democratic society. We have to have a baseline of agreed information in a democracy for it to function. That's why we've protected the free press.

How do we govern without limiting speech, and how do we govern in a way that promotes free expression and promotes more people speaking, not less, but changes the incentives so the harmful speech is diminished?

As the conversation about ownership of Twitter continues, what do you think Canadian politicians should be thinking about as this deal potentially progresses? 

Interestingly, Thierry Breton is in charge of this stuff for the EU and he's the one who's been pushing their governance approach here. He said, look, Musk can do whatever he wants, but he's going to have to abide by European law.

So if we have a law that says you have to do risk assessments on your products to show they're not causing harm to European citizens, it doesn't matter who the CEO or what the ownership structure of Twitter is. 

So if Elon Musk makes Twitter more toxic, he still has to abide by Canadian law. I think it just increases the need for us to govern this space in a way that we choose as a democratic country. If Twitter wants to operate in Canada, they'll have to abide by Canadian law. 

If we want to prioritize product safety over virality [and] engagement of speech, that's our right to do that.

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview produced by Abby Plener. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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