International authorized perils beset a downsized Twitter

Illustration of the Twitter logo in a globe stand.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Twitter faces a mass of forces abroad and in Washington that aim to compel the company to obey privacy rules, speech limits and other regulations as Elon Musk remakes the service.

Why it matters: Musk’s word is law inside Twitter now, but his disdain for rules will encounter tough pushback from governments around the world — just as the company has lost most of the people who managed its relationships with regulators and legislators.

Twitter’s biggest challenges lie abroad, particularly in Europe, which has been steadily tightening tech regulations for years.

  • Twitter has lost its head of policy in Brussels, Stephen Turner, even as the European Union is set to start putting into force its Digital Services Act, which lays out new rules for tech platforms around misinformation, illegal content and transparency.
  • Gone also is Michele Austin, former head of policy for the US and Canada, at a time when Canada is considering new, tighter privacy rules.
  • Twitter must continue to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation, Europe’s data privacy law, but it’s not clear that the company is doing so, per TechCrunch.

In authoritarian countries, Twitter has consistently fought against court orders for user information and opposed data localization laws. Twitter sued the Indian government in July over takedown orders and faces challenges in Japan, Russia, Turkey and South Korea.

  • “[Twitter] had an entire team handling information requests… a lot of that team has left, and they had held deeply that they were the last backstop over government overreach,” a person familiar with Twitter’s policy team told Axios.

In the U.S., Twitter also has multiple major policy and legal concerns.

The Federal Trade Commission has its eyes on the company’s 2011 consent decree covering users’ data privacy, which Twitter would face steep fines and penalties for violating.

  • The FTC has publicly said it was deeply concerned about Twitter’s changes and has called for those with any information on potential violations of FTC orders to come forward.
  • Three senior Twitter executives who had partly worked on FTC compliance resigned earlier this month. Musk adviser Alex Spiro has said, per Bloomberg Law, that the company’s legal department was continuing compliance.
  • The FTC’s enforcement powers under a consent decree include assessing fines, taking depositions from current and former employees and third parties, requesting documents, and compelling people under the force of law if they don’t comply.

Congress has a new Republican House majority that is determined to knock down Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a key law underlying all social media platforms which shields them from liability for what users post.

State governments are passing new tech regulations and content moderation laws much more quickly than Congress can.

  • For those working inside Twitter on the recent cascade of state-level content laws, “It’s like you were living in the dumpster and it was always on fire,” Tom Tarantino, who ran Twitter’s global crisis response and US state and city government relations team until April, told Axios.
  • “While I’m sure that the remaining policy team is doing all they can, it’s been pretty clear that this is not where Musk or his team are focused on,” Tarantino said. “The systematic dismantling of the policy, safety, and product organizations is going to make doing this work extremely challenging and risky for the platform.”

The big picture: “Regulators have significant tools at their disposal to enforce their will on Twitter and on Mr. Musk,” wrote Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, in the New York Times this month. “Even a Musk-led Twitter will struggle to shrug off these constraints.”

Back at Twitter HQ, Musk’s layoffs and ultimatums have left the company with severely reduced privacy, trust and safety, policy and legal teams who don’t have clear directives from the top, several team members who recently left Twitter told Axios.

  • Where there are personnel gaps, those who remain will fill in as they can, but “the risk is that the team is pushed to the breaking point,” Colin Crowell, former vice president of public policy at Twitter, told Axios. “It’s like trying to spread one pat of butter across an entire load of bread.”

The bottom line: Twitter’s remaining public policy staff will have a hard time representing the company if they don’t know where the CEO stands and everyone else knows that he might reverse a policy via a tweet at any hour of the day.

  • A public policy team may not generate revenue, Crowell said, but it’s the “connective tissue” that can help shield a company from regulatory costs, laws or burdens the company thinks is unfair.
  • Twitter’s remaining public policy leaders are experienced and talented, Crowell said, but “if [the team] is stretched too thin…competitors and regulators may run up the score,” he said.

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