Home Tech News EU tech regulators visit Twitter HQ to ‘stress test’ content moderation

EU tech regulators visit Twitter HQ to ‘stress test’ content moderation

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SAN FRANCISCO — Shortly after buying Twitter, Elon Musk fired the company’s top trust and safety executive and posted a late-night proclamation to his more than 100 million followers: “The bird is freed.”

Within hours, a powerful European Union commissioner responded with a warning to the billionaire about his free-wheeling plans for the site.

“In Europe, the bird will fly by our rules,” tweeted Thierry Breton, including the hashtag #DSA — a reference to the bloc’s landmark social media law, which will soon carry potential fines for tech companies like Twitter.

Almost nine months later, Breton is making good on that promise. On Thursday, he traveled to Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters to conduct a “stress test” to analyze how the company responds to tweets that European regulators deem problematic. Breton said he had a “very good” meeting with Musk and Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino, and that he observed a strong willingness for Twitter to comply with the DSA. But he noted that the test showed the company still has work to do before the E.U. begins enforcing the law in late August.

“Technology has been ‘stress testing’ our society,” said Breton during a speech Thursday evening. “It is now time to turn the tables.”

Breton’s trip to the West Coast reflects the rapid expansion of the European Union’s influence. As Congress has dithered for years in its attempts to regulate Big Tech, the European Union is advancing a robust artificial intelligence bill and preparing to enforce the DSA and the Digital Markets Act, a pair of laws that could have far-reaching consequences for the future of the internet.

These breakthrough efforts are forcing American tech titans like Musk to train their attention on Europe — and to cater to officials like Breton.

Europe moves ahead on AI regulation, challenging tech giants’ power

Twitter voluntarily participated in the test, which was conducted at its headquarters by a team of about ten E.U. technologists. Breton did not publicly release the results of the test, and his spokesman Terence Zakka told reporters that Twitter could decide whether to publicize them.

The European Union will soon have the most expansive tool kit of any Western government to check some of American tech titans’ alleged abuses. The bloc has opened an office in downtown San Francisco, signaling their focus on West Coast companies. Despite this flurry of activity, Brussels has a checkered history of enforcement, and it’s unclear if they have the resources or speed to oversee some of the world’s most powerful companies.

The E.U.’s General Data Protection Regulation, a provision hailed by some privacy advocates as an international benchmark for protecting citizens’ data from surveillance, celebrated its five-year anniversary last month. But in practice, cases under GDPR often move slowly and are resource intensive, relying on data regulators in individual European countries. Some companies argue the rules result in burdensome and expensive compliance practices.

Now the European Union’s reputation as Silicon Valley’s top cop faces a new test, as enforcement of both the DSA and DMA are scheduled to begin by the end of this summer, while European officials expect to reach a deal on AI legislation by the end of the year.

Europe’s focus on business practices of American tech titans is evident in the agenda for Breton’s trip. The morning after the stress test, he will host a launch event for the European Union’s San Francisco office, a physical foothold for regulators in the tech industry’s backyard. He’ll also meet with a host of tech executives shaping the future of AI, including Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, chip maker Nvidia chief executive Jensen Huang and OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman. During those meetings, he plans to discuss a new “AI Pact,” a voluntary pledge to ensure the responsible development of AI until the AI Act takes effect. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai agreed to take the pledge recently, Breton said.

The European Union’s activity stands in stark contrast to the United States, where efforts to pass new laws governing tech platforms have often fallen behind other priorities, amid intense corporate lobbying campaigns and at-times partisan political fights.

This week, President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) attempted to signal a different posture. Biden traveled to Silicon Valley, where he huddled on Tuesday with prominent consumer advocates and researchers to discuss the risks associated with the rapid rise of artificial intelligence. The next day, Schumer gave a speech across the country at a think tank in Washington, where he outlined how he plans to lead Congress’s response to the “AI revolution.”

“In many ways, we’re starting from scratch,” said Schumer. “But I believe Congress is up to the challenge.”

As Washington debates how to mount its response, Europe has entered a new regulatory phase. Already the tech rules on the books are shaping the business practices of companies’ AI products. Google has had to delay its launch of chatbot Bard in Europe amid requests from the Irish data regulator, and Italy temporarily banned ChatGPT from operating due to concerns it violated GDPR.

OpenAI embraced regulation— until talks got serious in Europe

The bloc is simultaneously speeding ahead on rules that will govern transparency of popular tech products and digital competition rules, which will have immediate implications for social networks, app stores and online marketplaces, and over time could impact chatbots and other AI-powered products.

Last year, the E.U. Commission opened an office in San Francisco, nestled in the downtown Irish consulate, to serve effectively as an embassy among the world’s most powerful companies. The office launches this week, but its work began when its leader Gerard de Graaf first moved to San Francisco last year.

Since moving to California, de Graaf has donned a virtual reality headset to explore the Metaverse while visiting Meta’s Menlo Park headquarters and met with California lawmakers to discuss how they could craft state laws that mirror the legislation in Europe. He frequently meets with company executives to ensure that they’re prepared for the coming impact of the DSA and the DMA.

“A lot of the experiences and digital transformations that we’re going through have their origins here on the West Coast of the United States,” said de Graaf, who wore a blazer in famously casual San Francisco, but assimilates by pairing his formal attire with sneakers. “There is a lot we can learn.”

Companies can face fines of up to 6 percent of their global revenue if they are found to be violating the rules. Repeated violators can be banned from operating in Europe.

The law has special requirements for “very large platforms,” services such as Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube that are used by more than 45 million monthly active users in Europe, requiring they conduct annual risk assessments about illegal content on their sites and submit to independent audits.

The DSA, like other European tech laws, is being closely watched by American policymakers interested in regulating social media companies.

Biden administration officials and their E.U. counterparts hold regular meetings to ensure they’re aligned on tech policy issues, through a Trade and Technology Council established in 2021. Yet much of the DSA would be challenging to enact in the United States, where the First Amendment ensures broad speech protections and conservative politicians regularly express worries about censorship of social media.

Twitter is the only company that will undergo a stress test on this trip. Breton announced in his speech Thursday that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, would also participate in a test later this summer.

E.U. technologists began the test of Twitter on Wednesday, pressing Twitter’s staff on how it would handle tweets or explain viral elements that would be unlawful under E.U. law, Zakka said. They measured how long it would take the company to respond to violative tweets.

The E.U. technologists evaluated the results of company’s tool Community Notes, which is part of Musk’s strategy to address falsehoods on the platform, Zakka said. The tool is not yet available in all the languages of E.U. member countries, and the technologists discussed the company’s plan to roll those languages out. They also had technical discussions about how it would develop tools for people to flag illegal content on Twitter, as well as appeal decisions the company makes, in order to be in compliance with the E.U. law.

Musk agreed to participate following a November meeting with Breton, where he also promised to comply with the DSA.

Since then, Musk has continued to slash Twitter’s staff, cutting critical content moderation personnel and unwinding years-long programs intended to promote platform transparency and safety. Key staffers, including the company’s trust and safety chief Ella Irwin, departed the company this month. The company has begun charging $500,000 annually for access to its API, which has hampered war crimes and disinformation research, experts say. The practices appear to conflict with the goals of the DSA, which aims to expand researcher access to social media companies’ often opaque systems.

Late last month, the company withdrew from the voluntary Code of Practice on Disinformation, a set of standards to fight misinformation and disinformation followed by more than 20 companies.

“You can run but you can’t hide,” Breton wrote in a May tweet, warning that fighting disinformation would become a legal requirement as of Aug. 25. “Our teams will be ready for enforcement.”

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