Will Elon Musk’s commitments to free speech ruin Twitter and further erode American democracy? That seems to be the main topic of conversation when it comes to the billionaire’s recent takeover of the social media platform, which he announced with an extremely heavy-handed pun two weeks ago. Some pundits have expressed alarm in regard to Musk’s declared mission of promoting free speech on Twitter, warning about the potentially dire consequences for society of loosening the platform’s content moderation policies. Others have argued that more free speech is actually a good thing — but there’s no reason to think that Musk will live up to his espoused ideals.
Fewer voices, though, are sounding the alarm bells about the likely consequences for Twitter’s data and privacy policies with Musk at the helm.
It’s no secret that all social media platforms collect user data. This data can be anything from IP addresses to users’ personal information to messages sent on the platform. These platforms are profitable because they use our data to help promote advertising. To optimize profitability, they either share the information with ad partners, use it internally for their own advertisement programs, or use the data for other marketing and advertising purposes.
With all this collection of data, it’s difficult for users to get a sense of what their privacy rights are and how they can protect themselves from illicit uses of their data. Every company has privacy policies, which range from opaque legalese to gamified, easy-to-read versions. Usually, when you sign up to use a social media platform, you agree to many things, including having your data stored by that platform. If you’re concerned with how your data might be used, your one option for protecting yourself is to opt out completely from using the platform.
In Good Hands
Completely opting out of these platforms is not a realistic choice for most people in the twenty-first century. For better or worse, social media constitutes our public town square: participating in society’s discourse today means using services like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. And when we use a social media platform, our data protection is in the hands of the executives and lawyers who craft the privacy policies. We have very little say in the matter.
In comparison to other major social media platforms like Facebook and TikTok, Twitter has always been a bit more protective of its users’ data. Though all three platforms claim to not sell user data to third parties, how user information is shared — and how transparent this is — varies from company to company.
For example, TikTok shares personal information with relevant businesses and service providers
to help [us] perform business operations and for business purposes, including research, payment processing and transaction fulfillment, database maintenance, administering contests and special offers, technology services, deliveries, sending communications, advertising, analytics, measurement, data storage and hosting, disaster recovery, search engine optimization, marketing, and data processing.
What a broad set of categories.
Twitter has also allowed users to use pseudonyms or monikers as their display names, a practice that is not followed by all social media giants. Since users are allowed to use fake names, there is no required identity verification for Twitter users. All this and other privacy protections might change when Musk’s takeover of the company starts to shake out.
While Musk has expressed his commitment to making Twitter more free speech–friendly — a commitment worth taking with a grain of salt — other comments he’s made don’t bode well from a privacy standpoint. Along with claiming that he wants to enhance the platform with new features, he wants to “authenticate all real humans.” What exactly this means is unclear, but it could signal an end to the current username policy. This would mean that users would be more closely tied to their identity, making their data easier to track — and more lucrative to sell to advertisers.
What is most concerning, though, is that Musk now has access to the data of every Twitter user. As CEO, he has direct access to all the data stored on the platform. Every IP address, direct message, and user profile is now in his hands. Who knows what he’ll do with this information? One possibility is that Musk will begin partnering with companies that change how our data is shared; more people, and more unaccountable corporations, may become privy to our information.
It’s also possible that Musk will take advantage of partnerships that benefit his other companies, like Tesla. In this case, users’ data privacy could take a back seat. Not only could partnered companies gain access to Twitter users’ data, but Musk could authorize government agencies, foreign or domestic, to access the data. Musk has partnered with the US government on many SpaceX projects, signing a $653 million contract with the US Air Force in 2020. There’s every reason to think these sorts of collaborations will continue or expand, given that Musk now has the personal information of hundreds of millions of Twitter users at his disposal.
A Murky Outlook
The problem is not that Elon Musk is a particularly repugnant or rapacious billionaire, though he is. The problem is letting a handful of oligarchs control the digital town square, with profits their primary concern. Instead of letting platforms like Twitter be the playthings of megalomaniacal capitalists like Musk, we could bring social media platforms under public, democratic control. That would take the profit motive out of the equation and allow us to deliberate collectively on how we want our data to be used.
The alternative is to cede yet another key aspect of our lives to domination by the superrich, with all the dire consequences for user experience and privacy that entails.
Monika Chao is a PhD student researching the ethics of data and privacy at the University of California, Berkeley.
This article was first published on Jacobin.
Featured image: Elon Musk. Photo: Daniel Oberhaus (2018)/Flickr