LONDON — Elon Musk’s decision to suspend several high-profile journalists from Twitter provoked condemnation not only in the United States, but also beyond, where opposition to the move in Europe highlighted what a looming showdown with the billionaire could be .
Leaders on the continent lined up on Friday to criticize the move, adding domestic pressure on Twitter’s new owner and indicating its efforts to remake the social media platform could put it on course for a clash with the harsh new rules of Europe focused on Big Tech.
Musk reinstated the suspended journalists early Saturday after a Twitter poll, but he had already received reprimands from the European Union and the United Nations.
“Media freedom is not a toy,” UN communications chief Melissa Fleming said in a tweet on Friday, adding she was “deeply disturbed” by the suspension of journalists from the site.
Germany’s foreign ministry tweeted that “press freedom cannot be turned on and off on a whim,” while French industry minister Roland Lescure tweeted Friday morning that he would suspend his account in protest until further notice. His account remains active, but no tweets have been made since then.
Perhaps most notable, however, was the response from senior officials of the EU, the bloc of 27 countries that is taking an increasingly strong stance on regulating the online space.
“The EU Digital Services Act requires respect for media freedom and fundamental rights. This is reinforced by our #MediaFreedomAct,” European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová said in a post on Twitter.
“There will be red lines soon,” she said, “and sanctions.”
The Digital Services Act introduces a sweeping new set of rules designed to curb the power of technology companies and promote the “fundamental rights online” of Internet users. This law, which comes into effect in 2024, will make platforms and search engines more responsible for illegal and harmful content online, including hate speech, scams and disinformation.
“In particular, platforms will need to ensure that their terms and conditions are clear, understandable, transparent and respect media freedom,” a Jourová spokesperson told NBC News in an emailed statement.
“They cannot be arbitrary or discriminatory in their decisions,” they added. Non-compliance in the case of very large online platforms and search engines would lead to fines of up to 6% of the company’s global revenue, Jourová’s office said.
“Rogue platforms that refuse to fulfill important obligations, thereby endangering people’s lives and safety, will, as a last resort, be able to ask a court to temporarily suspend their services, after the intervention of all relevant parties,” they added.
That broad remit meant that Friday wasn’t the first time Musk aroused the ire of the EU over his management of Twitter.
After internal disagreements at the company in November, top EU official Thierry Breton Musk warned that to comply with the bloc’s content moderation laws, “Twitter must implement transparent user policies, significantly strengthen content moderation and protect freedom of expression, disinformation firmly should address, and limit targeted advertising,” said a conference call transcript released by his office.
Musk also came under fire from European regulators when the company attempted to emulate the unannounced firing practices of its “hardcore” Twitter rebrand with mass layoffs at its European headquarters in Dublin.
But despite the strong rhetoric, experts warned that the EU could struggle to enforce its laws and hold Musk accountable for content moderation and free speech as forcefully as warned.
“You only have to look at the EU’s approach to Hungary and Poland, where both countries are eroding democracy and liberal values. Enforcement of any kind could take years,” said Joseph Downing, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the Aston University Center for Europe.
“Elon Musk and Twitter are nimble. He can wake up one morning and snap his fingers, and by 4 a.m. the world has changed,” he added. “The EU can condemn it, they can look at laws and have a discussion, and it could be months or years later.”
Musk has accused the journalists of sharing private information about his whereabouts, which he described as “actually murder coordinates.” Several of the suspended reporters had written about Twitter’s latest rule change around accounts tracking private jets and Musk’s rationale for imposing it, which included allegations of a stalking incident he said affected his family.
“The European legal arsenal is not enough to counter arbitrary censorship,” said Ricardo Gutiérrez, Secretary General of the European Federation of Journalists.
“While platforms are ubiquitous in everyday life, governance over the scale of their operations is incomplete and insufficient,” he added.
EU officials have also estimated they will add more than 100 full-time employees by 2024 to enforce the Digital Services Act and other new digital competition rules. Member States will also need to hire more people to oversee smaller platforms and coordinate with Brussels.
But the legislation is more about making sure social media companies remove harmful content than petitioning to keep specific content updated — even if that content comes from news services, Downing said.
“The Digital Services Act isn’t prepared for this kind of problem because it wasn’t designed for that,” Downing said, speaking of Thursday’s suspension of technology journalists.
“There was never the idea that journalists would be banned from Twitter, because that’s not what Twitter does,” he added.