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April 15, 2022

Some weeks feel like fortnights! This was one.

Today's newsletter is 1,186 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: How Musk's free-speech Twitter dream ends

Illustration of the twitter bird logo as an open padlock

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A lot of people with long internet memories rolled their eyes Thursday at Elon Musk's announcement that he wants to make Twitter a free-speech haven, because they have seen the movie and know how it ends.

The big picture: In the past, online free-speech havens have either been forced to reverse course and add rules — or they've turned into free-fire zones enjoyed chiefly by extremists and trolls.

Driving the news: After announcing a hostile takeover bid for Twitter, Musk took the stage at TED in Vancouver Thursday and described his vision for it.

  • Twitter, he argues, should enforce local laws and then let people say anything they want.
  • "Is someone you don't like allowed to say something you don't like? If that is the case, then we have free speech."

Yes, but: Virtually every major online platform and service today started with a similar idea. They gradually accreted more rules over time because human beings do crazy, unpredictable things, and then masses of others object to what they're doing.

Things like:

  • Organizing large groups of users to harass others because of who they are or what they've said.
  • Spreading misinformation that causes active harm.
  • Flooding conversations with marketing spam.
  • Posting violent or explicit images that virtually no one wants to see.
  • Or just saying hateful, hurtful things that most of us would rather not hear.

Faced with such behavior, most platforms evolve rules according to the preferences of their owners and their communities.

  • The minority of online spaces that have chosen the "anything goes" route — the best-known examples are 4chan and its successors — nearly all turned ugly fast and stayed that way.
  • In the name of free speech, they become environments where the vast majority of people won't say anything at all.

The conservative discussion spaces that have multiplied recently, offering alternatives to Twitter after it banned former President Trump, talk up free speech. But most have their own rulebooks that go well beyond "don't break the law."

As for Twitter itself, it once proudly declared that it represented "the free speech wing of the free speech party."

  • Its rules have remained relatively more lax than those of many competing platforms.
  • And large numbers of users already regularly complain, "Why is Twitter full of people I don't like saying things I don't like?"

Between the lines: Musk's dream is that you can somehow avoid the mess that modern-day platform content moderation has become by following some commonsense rules and erring on the side of freedom when the calls get tough.

  • But at the scale of a global platform like Twitter, users will always be throwing out edge cases, novelties and unpredictable challenges. "Common sense" can never keep up.

Our thought bubble: Decades of internet experience show that there is a kind of Gresham's law to online posting: In digital environments, bad speech tends to drive out good.

  • You can pick from many different proven counter-strategies. Pretending the problem doesn't exist isn't one of them.

2. Takeover drama wears on Twitter employees

Photo of Elon Musk's home page on Twitter

Photo illustration: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The chaos surrounding Elon Musk's hostile takeover bid is starting to wear on Twitter employees already buffeted by two weeks of ups and downs resulting from Musk's volatile efforts to change the company, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: Former CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey spent years cultivating a culture of transparency at Twitter, empowering employees to speak freely on Slack and demand answers to tricky questions.

Driving the news: At an all-hands meeting on Thursday afternoon, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal acknowledged the strain the saga was causing for employees, but said he would focus his energy on things he could control.

  • Agrawal said he couldn't discuss Twitter's options in great detail for legal reasons, but tried his best to ensure Twitter's roughly 7,500 full-time employees that Twitter's board would do what was best for shareholders.
  • Sources in the meeting said he tried to make a conscious effort to provide anxious staffers with as much information as possible without speculating about Twitter's options. He was walking a "tightrope," one noted.

Between the lines: Leading up to Musk's hostile takeover bid, employees were on edge, but not panicked, according to multiple sources inside Twitter.

  • When Musk first disclosed on April 4 that he owned a 9.2% stake in Twitter — making him the company's largest shareholder — employees didn't know what to make of the news.
  • But days later, after Musk was awarded a board seat — preventing him from a hostile takeover — many said they felt relieved, and a few were optimistic.

Be smart: Most employees found out about the takeover bid from news reports early Thursday morning. Throughout the day, Twitter's Slack channels filled with questions about what the news meant for the company and job security.

The big picture: Adding to Twitter's stress, its leadership is still settling in.

  • Agrawal, the company's former technology chief, replaced Dorsey as CEO last November after, as sources told Axios, an activist investor pushed Dorsey out.

The bottom line: "It's the speculation of the unknown that's hardest on folks," one source said. "And what that means for jobs."

3. Biden's step forward on AI policy

The Commerce Department has appointed more than two dozen experts to a committee that will advise President Biden on artificial intelligence policy, Axios' Ashley Gold reports.

Why it matters: It's the Biden administration's first substantive step to shape U.S. policy on AI, as Europe, China and other countries leap ahead with their own rules.

  • Thursday's announcement comes as lawmakers and the public continue to grapple with AI's role in everyday life. House lawmakers launched an investigation into facial-recognition scanning company Thursday, per the Washington Post.

Driving the news: 27 people from across the private sector and academia, who were nominated by the public, will make up the National Artificial Intelligence Advisory Committee.

  • The committee's creation was mandated by the National AI Initiative Act of 2020, passed as part of 2021's National Defense Authorization Act.
  • The committee's recommendations will "serve as building blocks for U.S. AI policy for decades to come," Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves said in the announcement.
  • Congress has directed the committee to "submit a report to the President and Congress after the first year, and then again every three years, that provides their findings and recommendations...."

Details: The committee includes executives from companies like Google, Workday, Salesforce, Nvidia, Microsoft and Amazon Web Services, along with scholars from Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Cornell.

  • Part of the group's focus will be on "matters related to the use of AI in law enforcement," including bias and data security, per the announcement.

4. Take note

On Tap

  • Happy Easter, Passover, or any other vernal holiday you may celebrate!

Trading Places

  • Dantley Davis, Twitter's former design director who left the company last year, announced on Twitter that he is joining Nike as vice president of digital design.


5. After you Login

Duet with a starling and a piano: some delicate sounds to ease out of your week.