The proposed $44 billion takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk, who calls himself a free speech absolutist, is highlighting the divide among Democrats and Republicans when it comes to regulating Big Tech platforms.
Republicans celebrated the news that was announced Monday that Musk, who owns electric car company Tesla and SpaceX, the maker of rocket ships, is planning to take over Twitter.
“Free speech is making a comeback,” tweeted Rep. Jim Jordan, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the Freedom Caucus of conservative House Republicans.
Meanwhile, Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a progressive from Massachusetts, called the deal “dangerous for our democracy.”
The discordant views over what it means for the richest man in the world to take control of the influential social media platform popular among journalists, politicians and activists around the globe shows how far apart the two political parties are when it comes to how or even why the nation’s largest tech companies should be regulated.
Since 2016 lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have promised to rein in the power and influence of Big Tech as they’ve been alarmed by the power that giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter wield. Despite the many congressional hearings, little has changed so far. House and Senate members have introduced dozens of bills, including a federal privacy law, a modernization of antitrust laws and a rethinking of tech companies’ sweeping federal liability shield. But to date, no legislation has become law.
Republicans have long complained that the Silicon Valley powerhouses are biased against conservative views and work to censor conservatives, like former President Donald Trump, while giving liberal politicians a pass. Twitter permanently banned Trump following the January 6 insurrection.
But Democrats have grown increasingly concerned with the flood of troubling content online, including disinformation about the coronavirus vaccines, lies about the outcome of the US presidential election and the deadly attack on the US Capitol. They want Big Tech platforms like Twitter and Facebook to more actively combat misinformation and hate speech.
Musk, who has said he plans to take the social media platform private once he takes control, has criticized Twitter for being too strict in its content moderation policies and for stifling dissent and disagreement. Instead, he says he wants to revise Twitter’s policies to allow more lenient moderation that promotes freer speech.
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy,” Musk said in a press release, dubbing Twitter a “digital town square” for debating issues. He tweeted Monday: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, who has been vocal in her criticism of Twitter and other social media platforms for censoring conservative viewpoints, applauded the news of Musk’s takeover.
“I am hopeful that Elon Musk will help rein in Big Tech’s history of censoring users that have a different viewpoint,” she said in a tweet Monday.
Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also said Musk’s control of Twitter was a victory for anti-censorship.
“Big Tech cannot continue to silence people—they are not and should not be the arbiters of truth. It is time to replace Big Tech censorship with the battle of ideas and I am hopeful for a new free speech direction at @Twitter,” she tweeted.
Exactly how lenient Musk will be in terms of what he will allow on Twitter is still unknown. On Tuesday, Musk emphasized in yet another tweet that he isn’t advocating a free-for-all on the platform.
“By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people,” he said.
But Democrats warned the issue is not about censorship, but rather the concentrated control of highly influential platforms in the hands of a few rich executives.
“Billionaires like Elon Musk play by a different set of rules than everyone else, accumulating power for their own gain. We need a wealth tax and strong rules to hold Big Tech accountable,” Sen. Warren said on Twitter.
Digital rights groups, like Fight for the Future, have echoed the sentiment.
“If we want a future with free speech, it’s not going to be a future where the richest man on earth can simply purchase a platform that millions of people depend on, and then change the rules to his liking,” Evan Greer, a director at Fight for the Future, said in a statement Tuesday.
She added the real problem with Musk’s bid to buy Twitter is the fact that “there are a tiny handful corporations that essentially have a monopoly on human attention, and enormous power over what can be seen and heard and done online.”
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki on Monday declined direct comment on Musk’s deal, but she said that President Biden is also concerned about the power dynamic.
“The president has long talked about his concerns about the power of social media platforms, including Twitter and others, to spread misinformation,” she said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, expressed concern with Musk’s control of Twitter users’ personal data. He tweeted Monday, “If the U.S. had a privacy law with teeth, or if Twitter encrypted DMs like I urged years ago, Americans wouldn’t be left wondering what today’s sale means for their private information. The protection of Americans’ privacy must be a condition of any sale.”
Rep. Ro Khanna a Democrat from California said the deal was a reason to pass legislation that protects data of people who use the internet.
“We need safeguards in place that give users more control over their data and ensure fairness and transparency,” Khanna said in a statement.