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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Twitter Is on a Collision Course With Europe

From the outside, it might not look like much has changed in the repurposed 1970s office block that serves as Twitter’s European headquarters. But inside, the mood has soured.

Just like in the US, Twitter’s teams across Europe have suffered heavy layoffs. Staff in Dublin, Ireland’s 1 Cumberland Place office, which used to house around 500 Twitter employees, have been using war terminology to describe the past week’s events. People who remain employees are “survivors,” and colleagues who have been let go are “fallen,” says one person with knowledge of the matter, who asked to remain anonymous. The first time employees in Ireland heard from the company’s new owner, Elon Musk, was on November 10, almost two weeks after his takeover. In an email, they were told that they would be required to work from the office 40 hours per week.

There is no centralized list of who has been fired. Instead employees have been looking at their colleagues’ statuses on workplace messaging app Slack to see if they are still working. Dublin is not the only European office to be affected by layoffs. Social media posts show employees in Brussels and London have been let go too. It’s unclear if employees in Twitter’s other European hubs—Hamburg, Madrid, Utrecht, Paris, Berlin and Manchester—have also been affected.

In Europe, a major concern is the fate of Twitter’s six-to-eight person team in Brussels, which worked on European policy and was the main point of contact with regulators working on upcoming legislation that could affect the entire platform. Only two people remain, say two people with knowledge of the matter.

That means Twitter has slashed its team as the European Union introduces landmark new technology rules, says Mathias Vermeulen, director of Brussels-based consultancy AWO. “It's definitely not a good look at a time when so many obligations are going to be imposed on companies, and at a time where regulators expect meaningful relationships with people based in Brussels.” By comparison, Meta and Google employ between 20 and 30 people each in the city, he says. Twitter did not reply to WIRED’s request to comment.

Even before the takeover, the company was facing a wave of scrutiny across the bloc. Trials against Twitter are pending in France, Germany, and the Netherlands about hate speech, defamation. and privacy. There is also concern in Ireland that Twitter did not follow the country’s strict employment rules while carrying out mass layoffs. Ireland’s Tánaiste (or deputy head of the government), Leo Varadkar, has still not received a collective redundancy notification in relation to potential redundancies at Twitter as required by law, a spokesperson for Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment told WIRED. And there is growing uneasiness in the European Parliament about Musk’s commitment to comply with Europe’s new Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts, now that its policy team in Brussels has been reduced to a skeleton staff.

Europe has been eager to demonstrate that its rules hold weight with the world’s biggest tech platforms, Twitter included. In May, European Commissioner Thierry Breton posted a video on Twitter showing him discussing the Digital Services Act with Elon Musk. “It’s exactly aligned with my thinking,” a deferential Musk said in the clip. Yet Musk’s comments about free speech and layoffs among moderation teams have put Europeans on edge. Trust and Safety, the team responsible for content moderation, has lost 15 percent of employees worldwide, according to Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity.

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“I think the prevailing feeling [in the European Parliament] is that what Musk is doing is very unprofessional and dangerous,” says member Tiemo Wölken, a German lawyer and member of the Socialists and Democrats, the second-largest group in parliament.

Wölken says that Musk’s Twitter takeover highlights the vulnerability of essential online infrastructure to the whims of whoever is in charge. “We should not rely on profit-oriented companies for online communication, and we should not rely on the goodwill and incredible commitment of individuals like [German Mastodon creator] Eugen Rochko,” he says. Instead, he suggests the European Union should create a European version of Germany’s new Sovereign Tech Fund to develop open-source social media alternatives to replace them. “We need fresh ideas,” he says.

Musk’s problems in Europe extend beyond his vision for the company. Maurice Quinlivan, chair of Ireland’s Oireachtas enterprise committee, said he was “concerned” at how the layoffs had been handled, and other politicians have asked whether to bring representatives from Twitter before the Irish Parliament to discuss layoffs.

In other countries, Musk inherits thorny issues from the previous management. Twitter is expected to appear in a court in Frankfurt, Germany, on November 24 to defend itself against charges that it has refused to take down defamatory content—which is covered by stricter rules in Germany than in the US. At a time when Musk is trying to cut costs, the lawyer bringing the case, Chan-Jo Jun, is calling for Twitter to increase human checks for defamation. “The lawyers of Twitter have replied it would be unbearable for Twitter to take the costs of making those manual checks to find out if something is legal or not,” says Jun. When Facebook tried the same defense in a similar case in Frankfurt against Jun earlier this year, it lost, he says. Facebook has appealed the court’s decision.

At the same time, Twitter is appealing a ruling in France, which ordered it to release details about how it moderates French language content. The case was brought by a series of nongovernmental groups—SOS Racism, SOS Homophobia, the Union of Jewish students, and the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism—who complained the platform was not doing enough to tackle hate speech.

And in the Netherlands, a Twitter-owned mobile ad platform called MoPub stands accused of illegally collecting personal data across tens of thousands of apps between 2013 and 2021. Although Twitter sold MoPub in January, the company is facing a claim for damages from 10 million adults and 1 million children, who are being represented by the Netherlands Data Protection Foundation. These cases are part of a wider trend to hold tech companies to account in European courts, not just through legislation, says Dutch MEP, Paul Tang.

Tang, like others in the European Parliament, is concerned by Musk’s trial-and-error approach, which makes Twitter—a platform that has a large impact on Europe’s public debate—suddenly feel unpredictable. “The fact he’s used Twitter to express support for the Republican party is not a good sign,” adds MEP Sophie in’t Veld, a member of the parliament’s third-largest group. Renew Europe, referring to Musk’s Tweet urging Americans to vote Republican in the midterms. Veld was one of two MEPs to write an open letter calling for Musk to appear before the European Parliament to share his intentions for the platform. “He will need to reassure [us] that he will fully comply with the law,” she says. “We also have something to tell him; that we will be watching very closely.”

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