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What would happen to free speech if Elon Musk bought Twitter?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Twitter is a global platform. It has hundreds of millions of active users. So what does it mean now that the world's richest person wants to buy it while saying it's all about free speech? Kate Klonick joins me now to discuss. She's an assistant law professor at St. John's University in New York. And she focuses on private governance of online speech. Good morning.

KATE KLONICK: Good morning.

FADEL: So Professor Klonick, assuming Musk follows through with his effort to buy Twitter, what would it mean if one wealthy person could buy a platform with this kind of reach and essentially say it's mine and I make the rules?

KLONICK: Yeah. It's a fascinating question because, of course, there are platforms like that that are owned by - technically by one person already and their boards. And so there'd still be some structure in place for this to be checked. But I think that we're seeing - what this moment is really showing us for a lot of people is that these private platforms that govern our public speech rights are really susceptible to the power of capitalism and just being - the fault lines that we expect to exist are being exposed.

FADEL: So Elon Musk calls himself a, quote, "free speech absolutist." He also has said he'll unlock Twitter's potential and allow all legal speech. So what do free speech advocates make of what he's saying?

KLONICK: Yeah. The concept of unlocking Twitter and allowing all legal speech on the platform is really complicated.

FADEL: Yeah.

KLONICK: For something to be legal is actually a very difficult thing and - to assess. And it's difficult between jurisdictions. And so one of the problems with what Musk is describing is in the United States, for instance, to allow all legal speech technically allowed under the First Amendment onto the platform, you would have to allow all spam to stay up on the platform. You would have to allow all pornography to stay up on the platform, all forms of hate speech. That's all First Amendment-protected speech. And so all of that would stay up, at least within the U.S. It could make the platform functionally unusable.

FADEL: I mean, this is a big discussion we're having in society right now about what is censorship and what is free speech, what's dangerous for society. And the platform has blocked users temporarily or permanently over controversial or hateful speech, the most prominent example being Donald Trump. Twitter kicked him off for violating a rule about glorifying violence after the 2021 Capitol attack. Would a platform owned by Elon Musk open the door again for speech that is being taken down and seen as dangerous?

KLONICK: It could potentially do that if he is able to go through with this. But this is something that, for those of us who have studied this for a while and for people who have worked in this industry for the last 15 or 20 years that there has always been these issues that have been lurking. I just think that they've been mostly invisible to the public. And so moments like Donald Trump being deplatformed or taken off Facebook and Twitter and moments like this finally kind of expose to people that there are - like, who is empowered to speak as freely as they think they can or not speak, how fragile those rights are online.

FADEL: You know, again, the idea of banning people on Twitter...

KLONICK: Yep.

FADEL: ...It's seen as censorship. On the other hand, we've seen people complain that hateful, problematic speech needs to be removed because it can lead to really dangerous moments. Is there a better way for Twitter and other platforms to moderate content and still respect democracy and free speech?

KLONICK: I think that these platforms - I know that people don't typically want to hear this. But a lot of these platforms are doing the best they can to try to splice that decision, which is a decision that is one of the hardest decisions for courts to make. And it is one of the hardest decisions for these platforms to make. And so I think that this line between censorship and hate speech is much, much more difficult to assess at scale than people understand. And so this is also kind of one of these moments that exposes that. I think it's naive of Musk to kind of go in and think that he can just wave a wand and turn Twitter into the platform that he wants it to be because the curation of these platforms is incredibly, incredibly complicated.

FADEL: The former CEO of Reddit, Ellen Pao, recently wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post criticizing how Musk might exercise his influence on the platform. And Musk tweeted about Jeff Bezos using his wealth to buy The Washington Post. Is this potential takeover of Twitter by Musk the same thing?

KLONICK: Yeah. That's a great comparison because it's just absolutely not. There's very strong kind of professionalized norms in journalism that split business and editorial. And Bezos' ownership of The Washington Post has almost nothing to do with the editorial side of the content. And the other part of this is that what Musk is trying to do with Twitter is to control users' speech and individual's speech. And that's not something that The Washington Post does.

FADEL: Assistant law professor Kate Klonick. Thank you for your time.

KLONICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.