Elon Musk’s Twitter buyout must not come at the expense of human rights

Originally published April 25, 2022

Update: July 11, 2022 — On July 8, Elon Musk announced that he terminated his agreement to buy Twitter. The company will now likely sue Musk under a legal doctrine called specific performance, which allows courts to force a deal to be completed, even if one or more parties wants out. Access Now is deeply disappointed that Twitter’s board allowed this prospective agreement to damage the company’s reputation and stock price. As we told Twitter, they should have approached this sale from a human rights perspective from the outset, accounting for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.

Following today’s announcement that Elon Musk will acquire complete ownership of Twitter in a cash sale of around 44 billion USD, pending shareholder approval, Access Now urges Twitter’s Board, employees, and shareholders, along with Elon Musk and investors backing the sale, to take immediate steps to affirm and strengthen Twitter’s commitments, policies, and practices to uphold human rights on the platform. Unless  the necessary human rights protections are included in the terms of the sale — which are yet to be disclosed — Twitter shareholders should vote against the agreement in defense of the platform’s most vulnerable users. 

Musk plans to take Twitter private immediately following the sale, asserting privatization is the only path forward for Twitter’s growth and future as a platform for free speech. In practice, however, this move reduces opportunities for transparency and accountability, including on matters of content governance, data protection, and corporate governance. “Spyware companies and other sections of the tech industry with troubling human rights records have used this type of regulatory darkness to act with impunity,” said Peter Micek, General Counsel at Access Now.

Musk has declared himself a “free speech absolutist” and indicated his intentions to minimize content moderation on the platform — a position that puts millions of people at risk and increases the likelihood of Twitter being used as a tool for inciting violence, hate, and harassment – what’s been dubbed Toxic Twitter.

“Elon Musk has a limited understanding of free expression and the complexities that surround its practical enjoyment,” said Javier Pallero, Policy Director at Access Now. “His apparent lack of concern for the importance of content moderation on the platform reflects his limited consideration for how hostile online spaces can be for marginalized groups. It also overlooks the often-fraught relationship between social media and political discourse, and the problems of scale, in which even legal content can become weaponized when circulated en masse.”

Musk is also notorious for lashing out in response to criticism, including with threats of legal action. While he has encouraged his critics to stay on the platform, it is yet to be seen to what extent he may abuse his newfound power to silence them. A Musk-owned Twitter could easily become yet another attempt at creating a social media platform where free speech is defined by the owners and their whims without transparency, accountability, or consideration for users’ rights, disregarding the international human rights standards and norms that have been developed over decades by subject-matter experts. 

The sale also raises serious concerns around data protection and users’ ability to control access to their private information. Twitter should take immediate steps to address this, including allowing people to delete their direct message history. As a space for coordination among activists, connections between journalists and sources, and beyond, private data on the platform is ripe for exploitation if proper safeguards are not in place. Musk’s proposal to “authenticate all humans” also poses a direct threat to anonymity on the platform, which has been a vital tool for human rights defenders and others to advance their work with reduced risk of persecution. 

Twitter — a platform of more than 300 million active users worldwide  — serves as an essential tool for activists, journalists, and human rights defenders around the globe. The company has made significant investments in understanding how its services impact people’s rights, coordinating with civil society and researchers to support at-risk communities, and regularly improving its policies and practices to keep people safe while also upholding free expression. “This commitment to ‘healthy conversations’ has not been without its issues,” said Carolyn Tackett, Campaigns Director at Access Now, “but a turn away would seriously harm human rights on one of the world’s most important platforms for public discourse and come at the loss of a leading voice in the sector.”

“Elon Musk has demonstrated a continuous disrespect and disregard for corporate governance, raising serious concerns about his ability to provide appropriate leadership for Twitter around enterprise risk management and responsible business conduct,” said Laura Okkonen, Investor Advocate at Access Now. “We encourage regulators to scrutinize this proposal and exercise their full powers to protect all stakeholders, including investors, from this threat.”

We call on Twitter to halt the sale until it sets out concrete measures to protect human rights, regardless of who owns the company. These should include conducting an independent human rights impact assessment of the proposed acquisition, as well as embedding respect for human rights at the Board level by appointing an independent human rights chair and a board committee accepting reports directly from the human rights team. The company should also publicly disclose what, if any, human rights due diligence was conducted before agreeing to the sale, and how the Board exercised its duty of care and concluded the company will be able to meet its human rights responsibilities under Musk’s ownership.

Twitter shareholders, including The Vanguard Group, Morgan Stanley, BlackRock, and State Street Corp., should also closely monitor these disclosures, and intervene to stop the sale if the necessary human rights protections are not in place. 

The financial institutions backing the sale, including Bank of America, Barclays, MUFG, Societe Generale, Mizuho Bank, Morgan Stanley, and BNP Paribas, should withdraw their support for the acquisition unless the significant human rights risks it presents are addressed.

We also encourage Twitter employees to continue speaking out about their concerns regarding the sale and to hard-code respect for human rights into the company, and for the individuals who rely on Twitter to advance human rights to let Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal (@paraga) and Board Chair Bret Taylor (@btaylor) know how this sale will impact you and your community.