Musk's Twitter goal of authenticating all users is good for ending bots but bad for humans

A lawyer's picnic awaits in jurisdictions with more robust defamation laws than the United States if Twitter authenticates all users.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
Elon Musk Twitter profile displayed on a computer screen and Twitter logo displayed on a phone screen
Image: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Say what you will about Elon Musk, and no doubt there is plenty to say, but should the $44 billion deal to buy Twitter close, at least the person in control of the social media site actually uses the damn thing.

A common criticism across recent years over the direction of Twitter has been whether those at the top use the site like its regular users do. Rather than tackle abuse properly by giving everyone access to the German option of autobanning neo-Nazi and white supremacist content, Twitter gave us Fleets, which didn't even survive a year

That sort of approach looks really good as a box ticking exercise for project managers, but for users, it looks like the company is distracted and doesn't really understand its own service.

Enter Elon Musk with his billions in financing and a plan to remake Twitter.

"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 in the official announcement of the deal. "I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans."

There is a lot of meaning in that single paragraph to unpack. Even Musk has walked back his prior apparent absolutist approach to free speech, saying if it is legal, it will be allowed. That leaves an awful lot of legal speech that is utterly abhorrent, which Musk will accept.

See also: No, Elon, Twitter will never be a platform for 'Free Speech'

"He has a kind of primitive libertarian notion of free speech, which essentially amounts to freedom of the microphone belongs to the person with the loudest voice and and the biggest club to beat away anybody else," executive director of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University Bruce Shapiro said on ABC Radio last week.

"It's not really a free speech model. It's a bullying model, that ends up turning platforms into vehicles for jeering culture wars and indeed, suppressing often more reasoned voices."

The big issue for a future Musk Twitter to consider is laws in places other than America. Traditionally a blind spot for US companies at the best of times, for a social network it takes on new meaning when concepts like defamation, hate speech, and authoritarian regimes are added.

For someone sitting in Australia, reading the words "authenticating all humans" from Musk sounds like the Australian government's dreams come true. With an election due later this month, the anti-trolling Bill -- that was actually a big stick for the powerful and cashed up to potentially start lobbying defamation threats and actions against those they disagreed with -- lapsed as Parliament rose. Given the bipartisan backing the concept has, it's best to think of it as sleeping, rather than deceased.

The Bill was something that Twitter had raised its own concerns about.

"Under this bill, online platforms choose between facing liability in court or turning over private sensitive information about users without a legal determination as to whether the content is in fact defamatory under the law," Twitter Australia's director for public policy Kara Hinesley said in March.

"We've seen a number of people both from a whistleblower space to even domestic violence situations, people that identify within the LGBTQIA community, utilising anonymous or synonymous accounts as ways and basically entry points into conversations about important matters.

"We do think that there are potential safety concerns which would be the opposite result of the stated intention of the Bill."

Retrospect: Twitter founder Jack Dorsey regrets playing a role in centralising the internet

Executive director of Digital Rights Watch, James Clark, told ZDNet that anonymity is vital in challenging the powerful.

"In an age when our digital footprint is more permanent and traceable than ever before, staying anonymous is a way to maintain a private life alongside a public one online," he said.

"I would also add that given Musk's history of intimidating critics and whistleblowers, I imagine there are many people who would be rightfully reluctant to upload identification documents to a platform that he controls."

Twitter being a billionaire's plaything is nothing new -- the last one in charge is now using the moniker of Block Head -- but it may soon be captured by a shitposting owner focused solely on killing off spambots and pursuing free speech as defined by the US First Amendment.

Those in the rest of the world where Musk's initiatives result in the sort of speech-stifling lawfare he seeks to avoid, are likely to be regarded as nothing more than collateral damage, even as they sink under legal fees.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening take on the week in tech, written by members of our editorial team. We're a global team so this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US, and 11:00PM in London.


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