Thursday, September 21, 2023

Elon Musk has a real problem with free speech

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Shreya Christina
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It’s been five months since Elon Musk agreed to buy Twitter, so it’s easy to forget that in those early heady days, this was supposed to be all about free speech. We are long past that now. But Musk at least showed a glimmer of interest in it this week, albeit in a completely different part of his empire: the Starlink internet satellites.

As the October trial is fast approaching, let’s talk about the Twitter case first. After Musk didn’t delay the trial, but successfully added a slew of new claims, Musk is preparing (or not, who knows!) answer Twitter’s questions in a deposition scheduled for September 26 and 27. The Chancery Daily Twitter account has helpfully mentioned some more pending interviews, mostly from financial agents surrounding the deal. As Insider notesTwitter even shuts down Musk’s own lawyer, a decision that one of the quoted experts calls “very strange”.

We probably won’t see any of the statements right away, including those from Musk and former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who interviewed earlier this week. It’s also not clear how much we’ll get from Musk. Twitter has a few obvious directions to explore: it could ask about Musk’s texting comments about delaying the deal in the event of “World War III,” which could undermine its bot deterrence claims, and may ask if Musk has any secret info under wraps from Peiter “Mudge” Zatko — something Twitter has demanded details of via court order and will argue for in a hearing next week. This would fit in with the intent to portray Zatko as a vengeful disgruntled employee, although breaking down Zatko’s motives is less important than dismantling his factual claims.

Musk has a history of getting irritable during deposits

Musk has a history of being terribly spicy during depositions. In a lawsuit over his solar energy company SolarCity, he gave an interview calling a lawyer a “shameful person” and a “bad person” and calling the case a waste of time. In the 2019 defamation lawsuit for dubbing caver Vernon Unsworth as a “pedo man,” he accused Unsworth and attorney L. Lin Wood of a “shakedown.” (This was before Wood became best known as “Trump coup dude.” More innocent times!) But Musk is being picky everywhere else at the moment too, so it’s not clear how much more confrontation he’ll get.

This is all fun if you – like me and certain other co-authors of This Week In Elon – are into litigation and legal wrangling. (Delaware Court of Chancery Chancellor Kathaleen McCormick, on the other hand, is openly annoyed by Musk’s lawyers, and if Elon’s courtroom history is any indication, she may not be exactly happy with Musk himself.) But it’s bad if you actually do. to be invested in Twitter as a speech platform, as Musk’s proposed buyout and legal attrition have apparently taken its toll, rather than improving the platform.

Earlier this week, Insider published reports of low morale and high turnover at the company, sources say outright 9 percent of employees have left (apparently mostly voluntary) in the months since Musk’s first meeting with them. This is deeply discouraging, and although it is way too early to be alarmed about it, it does raise a good question: What will the media landscape look like if Twitter fails? Twitter is one of those platforms that few ordinary people interact with, but journalists and political elites do obsessed with, and it is entering what will surely be a stressful period during the US midterm elections.

The Twitter trial will happily be over on Election Day, and what we know the preparations so far is pretty standard stuff – things like an election hub, information about voting and “prebunks” (which now support limited but growing research) to false stories. But there will be charges after the trial and possibly more arguments, and we may not get an injunction until the end of this year. It’s also impossible to foresee all the crises that could arise during an election, and it’s a particularly bad time for employees to be distracted and miserable. Twitter is the platform journalists like me love to hate, but it’s justifiably frustrating to see Musk morph from some sort of interesting (albeit misguided) speech experiment to a slash-and-burn attack on it.

Musk owning Twitter has always been an odd combination, and that becomes even more apparent when Musk starts pinning idealistic promises in his usual field of science fiction-y hardware experiments. This week the lucky candidate was Starlink, the satellite internet service that Musk launched last year. Musk was contacted on Twitter by journalist Erfan Kasraie, who asked Musk to bring Starlink’s service to Iran, which is currently in the throes of a severe communication lock in response to mass protests. In response, Musk said he planned to seek exemption from US sanctions in the country, which would open the door to sending Starlink equipment there.

We don’t know if Musk will continue, and of course it’s easy to be cynical about his big claims. (It’s also a bit ironic because Twitter was once the service) hailed as a tool for resistance and online freedom in Iran.) Starlink also doesn’t seem like a slam dunk for covert censorship evasion, as it requires a mounted satellite dish that isn’t exactly subtle.

That said, Starlink – despite all its limitations competing with wired internet services – is a functional product that has had some success as a last resort for internet services. Musk offered Starlink kits to Ukraine after the Russian invasion earlier this year, and months later it had… garnered praise from Ukrainian defense officials to stay online as fiber optic cables and cell towers were shut down. A group of lawmakers has also encouraged the Ministry of Finance to grant an exemption for Starlink, so he has support if he decides to figure that out.

Either way, all of this puts Musk in his natural element, and we’re likely to see more of those moments in the coming weeks. Later this month he claims he will reveal a version of his Optimus humanoid robot who is not a man in a robot suit. His brain-computer interface company Neuralink is: planning a Halloween “show and tell”of his progress. Will any of these revelations come true? Who knows! But at least they’re Musk trying to build something – not just destroy toys he no longer wants.

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