Twitter is obviously at the centre of what is commonly known as ‘Big Tech censorship’. It has been busily using the censorship tools at its disposal – from removing or quarantining tweets to surreptitiously ‘deboosting’ them (shadow-banning) to outright account suspension – for at least two years now. And those who have managed to remain on the platform will have noticed a sharp upturn in its censorship activities starting last summer.

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For most of this time, the main focus of Twitter censorship has, of course, been supposed ‘COVID-19 disinformation’. By now, almost all the most influential advocates of early treatment or critics of COVID-19 vaccines on Twitter have had their accounts suspended, and most have not made it back.

The list of the permanently suspended includes such prominent voices as Robert Malone, Steve Kirsch, Daniel Horowitz, Nick Hudson, Anthony Hinton, Jessica Rose, Naomi Wolf and, most recently, Peter McCullough. 

And myriad smaller accounts have met the same fate for committing such thought crimes as suggesting that the myocarditis risk of both mRNA vaccines (Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer) outstrips any benefit or pointing to mRNA instability and its unknown consequences for safety and efficacy.

But why in the world would Twitter censor such content? The expression ‘Big Tech censorship’ implies that Twitter et al. are censoring of their own accord, which invariably elicits the retort that, well, they are private companies, so they can do what they want. But why would they want to?

The notion that it is because the denizens of Silicon Valley are ‘Leftists’ or ‘liberals’ is clearly not very helpful. They may well be. But whether mRNA vaccines are safe and effective, as advertised, is a factual matter, not an ideological one. And, in any case, the purpose of private for-profit corporations is, needless to say, to make a profit. The motto of the shareholder is not “Workers of the World Unite!” but “Pecunia non olet.” money doesn’t stink. Shareholders expect management to create value, not destroy it.

But what Twitter is doing by censoring is precisely subverting its own business model, thus undermining profitability and putting downward pressure on share price. Free speech is obviously the lifeblood of every social media. Censored speech – like the tweets of a Robert Malone or a Peter McCullough or, for that matter, a Donald Trump – translates into lost traffic for the platform. And traffic is, of course, the key to monetising unrestricted online content. 

We could call this the ‘Twitter conundrum’. On the one hand, there is no way that Twitter could possibly ‘want’ to censor Covid dissident voices, or indeed any voices, and thus restrict its own traffic. But, on the other hand, if it fails to do so, it risks incurring massive fines of up to 6% of turnover, which would likely represent a deathblow to a company that already has not turned a profit since 2019. Twitter, in effect, has a financial gun to its head: censor or else.

Wait, what? There has been much talk recently of the Biden administration exerting informal pressure on Twitter and other social media to censor unwelcome content and voices, and lawsuits have even been launched against the Government for infringing the alleged victims’ First Amendment rights. But all that such pressure appears thus far to have consisted of are some chummy nudges in emails. 

There has surely not been any threat of fines. How could there be without a law authorising the executive branch to impose them? And such a law would be blatantly unconstitutional, since precisely what the First Amendment states concerning freedom of speech is that “Congress shall make no law… abridging” it.

But there’s the rub. Congress, needless to say, has not made any such law. But what if a foreign power made such a law and it de facto abridged the freedom of speech also of Americans? 

Unbeknownst to most Americans, this has in fact occurred and their First Amendment rights are being vitiated, namely, by the European Union. There is a financial gun pointed at Twitter. But it is not the Biden administration, but rather the European Commission, under the leadership of Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, that has its finger on the trigger.

The law in question is the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA), which was passed by the European Parliament last July 5th amidst almost total indifference – in Europe as much as in the United States – despite its momentous and disastrous implications for freedom of speech worldwide.

The DSA gives the European Commission the power to impose fines of up to 6% of global turnover on “very large online platforms or very large online search engines” that it finds to be non-compliant with its censorship requirements. “Very large” is defined as any platform or search engine that has over 45 million users in the EU. Note that while the size criterion is limited to users in the EU, the sanction is based precisely on the company’s global turnover.

The DSA has been designed to function in combination with the EU’s so-called Code of Practice on Disinformation: an ostensibly voluntary code for “combatting disinformation” – a.k.a. censoring – that was originally launched in 2018 and of which Twitter, Facebook/Meta and Google/YouTube are all signatories.

But with the passage of the DSA, the Code of Practice is evidently not so “voluntary” anymore. There is no need for complex legal analyses to show that the sanction provisions in the DSA are intended as the enforcement mechanism for the Code of Practice. The European Commission has said so itself – and in a tweet no less!

In fact, the Code has never really been all that voluntary. The Commission had already made its desire to ‘tame’ the U.S. tech giants known previously, and it had already flexed its muscles, imposing massive fines on Google and Facebook for other alleged offences.

Moreover, it has been brandishing the threat of the DSA fines since December 2020, when it first put forward the DSA legislation. (In the European Union, the Commission, the EU’s executive branch, has sole authority to initiate legislation. Quaint American notions like the separation of powers are not a thing in the EU.) The eventual passage of the legislation by the parliament has always been treated as a mere formality. Indeed, the above-cited tweet was posted on June 16th of this year, three weeks before the parliament voted on the law!

Curiously, the publication of the draft legislation coincided with the authorisation and subsequent rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccines in the EU: the legislation was unveiled on December 15th and the first COVID-19 vaccine, that of BioNTech and Pfizer, was authorised by the Commission just six days later. Vaccine sceptics or critics would quickly become the principal target of EU-driven online censorship thereafter.

Six months earlier, in June 2020, the Commission had already placed the focus of the Code firmly on alleged “Covid-19 disinformation” by launching a so-called Fighting COVID-19 Disinformation Monitoring Programme, in which all Code signatories were expected to participate. Some attempts had already been made at monitoring compliance with the Code, and signatories were expected to submit annual reports. But, as part of the COVID-19 monitoring program, signatories were now required – “voluntarily”, of course – to submit monthly reports to the Commission specifically dedicated to their COVID-19-related censorship efforts. The rhythm of submission was subsequently scaled back to bimonthly.

Twitter’s reports, for example, contain detailed statistics on Covid-related content removal and account suspensions. The below chart, showing the evolution of these numbers from February 2021 (shortly after vaccine rollout) through April 2022, is taken from Twitter’s latest available report from June of this year.

Note that the data concern content removed and accounts suspended globally, i.e., Twitter’s efforts to satisfy the Commission’s censorship expectations do not only affect the accounts of users based in the EU, but of users all around the world

The fact that many, if not most, of the accounts that have been suspended in this connection were written in English raises particularly troubling issues. In the aftermath of Brexit, after all, only around 1.5% of the EU’s population are native English speakers. Even supposing that policing speech was a good thing, what business does the EU have policing speech, or requiring social media platforms to police speech, in English, any more, say, than in Urdu or Arabic?   

The Twitter report and those of other Code signatories can be downloaded here. If the numbers were to be continued, they would undoubtedly show a sharp upturn in censorship activities starting in late June and early July. Twitter users interested in the subject could not help but have noticed the massive purge of Covid dissident accounts that occurred over the summer. 

And this upturn was in fact entirely to be expected, since on June 16th – the day the European Commission posted its warning to online platforms reproduced above and three weeks before the passage of the DSA – the Commission announced the adoption of a new, “strengthened” Code of Practice on Disinformation.

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