The free speech conflict that faces Elon Musk as he takes over Twitter
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Tesla founder Elon Musk. Photo / Getty Images
The debate about free speech was flung into the public consciousness first by a billionaire and then by the New Zealand Justice Minister.
Late last week, Elon Musk confirmed his ownership of Twitter – thereby becoming the latest example of a billionaire to take control of a major media platform.
This move vested enormous power in Musk in terms of what can and can’t be said on the platform.
Less than a week into his tenure, he has already shared misinformation via his account and we’ve seen the N-word trend on the platform as some users tested the boundaries under the new leadership at the company.
Musk did cool the concern slightly by saying that he wouldn’t allow Twitter to become “a free-for-all hellscape” but concerns persist given about what the self-dubbed “free speech absolutist” is willing to allow on the platform.
University of Otago Professor Colin Gavaghan, an expert in law and policy governing emerging technologies, tells the Front Page podcast that freedom of expression is simply not an absolute right under the law.
“We don’t have a right to threaten, blackmail or defame other people – and I’m not really aware of many people who think we ought to have doctors sharing medical details all over Twitter,” says Gavaghan.
“This is not to say that freedom of expression isn’t important. It’s very important, but it’s not, and has never been, an absolute one.”
The point he makes is that Elon Musk, like most people, has a line – it’s just a case of where he wants to draw it.
“Musk is talking about creating a content moderation council,” says Gavaghan
“At this point, it’s not quite certain what their role will be. From what we know about Musk, he’s likely to have a pretty hands-on role in all of this. And for me, the bigger question is about whether any private business or private business person can be trusted to draw the line for what Musk’s called the common digital square.”
Gavaghan says that what Musk is proposing here is quite different from anything as structured as the existing justice system.
“I’m generally pretty comfortable with our courts striking balances between free expression and privacy rights or harmful content – not because I always agree with them, but because I can at least see their reasoning,” the professor says.
“I can see that they’re constrained by existing rules and precedents, and I see them trying to be consistent in how they apply these decisions. A private owner, whether that be Musk or anybody, isn’t subject to same kinds of obligations. They can act on a whim. They can show bias, preference and over against certain kinds of viewpoints.”
Given it’s still so early in Musk’s tenure, many interest groups will be watching closely to see his next move.
The Tesla founder isn’t the only one to have contributed to the free speech debate appearing in New Zealand media in the last week.
Justice Minister Kiri Allan said over the weekend on TVNZ’s Q&A programme that the Government would continue to pursue its hate speech legislation.
So does Gavaghan think this step will make any difference to protections currently evident in the law?
Listen to today’s episode of The Front Page podcast to hear his take.
• The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald, available to listen to every weekday from 5am.