For the Record: Will ‘Free Speech’ Keep Free Music on Twitter?

For the Record: Will ‘Free Speech’ Keep Free Music on Twitter?

For the Record is the new Billboard column from deputy editorial director Robert Levine analyzing news and trends in the music industry.

Is Elon Musk a “pedo guy?”

This is the kind of nonsense we can expect more of on Twitter, which Musk recently arranged to buy and take private with the idea that it should be less moderated in the name of free speech. I’m joking about Musk, who famously referred this way to a British diver involved in the rescue of a Thai junior soccer team that had become trapped in a flooded cave. Sued for defamation, Musk basically said he was kidding.

In case Musk’s commitment to free speech wavers – as it sometimes seems to when the freedom of speech in question is someone else’s – let me repeat that I’m joking as well. 

Over the past few days, much virtual ink has been spilled trying to figure out why Musk seems to enjoy this sort of thing, what his purchase of Twitter might mean for the platform’s policies on hate speech and disinformation and how this might impact the future of democracy. Executive summary: It’s not good. And although there are far more important matters at stake, everyone involved with the music industry should recognize how much Musk’s particular brand of free speech rhetoric harks back to the late-’90s vision of the internet as a virtual utopia without regulation. That almost destroyed the business, as well as the livelihoods of many creators. Remember all that talk about how file-sharing was free speech?

The industry rebounded after its initially reluctant embrace of new business models like streaming – but that would have been impossible without some level of copyright enforcement. (How would Spotify fare against a streaming-enabled version of a free peer-to-peer file-sharing service?) Copyright was just the canary in the technology coal mine: The venture capitalists who had so much contempt for creators’ rights didn’t much care for privacy or labor law, either. They just didn’t like laws.

So it’s worth asking why so much coverage of Musk’s purchase of Twitter involves his personality, and how it might guide him as Twitter’s new owner. If Twitter is as important to public dialogue as Musk says, should all of these decisions really be left up to him? Shouldn’t we also figure out how to make sure social media companies make good-faith efforts to tackle disinformation and illegal activity on their platforms? The European Union just passed an important new law to regulate social media, and so far it has received less media attention in the U.S. than the mood of Twitter’s staff.

Twitter isn’t exactly tightly regulated now. It does moderate content more than it used to – almost always on its own initiative as opposed to following outside regulations – but it still doesn’t license music. Instead, it operates under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which requires rights holders to send takedown notices when their work appears there. (The RIAA and the NMPA have been sending Twitter takedown notices on behalf of their members – the former for years.) Silicon Valley still prefers begging forgiveness to asking permission.

The fate of the music business might seem petty amid the amount of racism and harassment on social media. That’s toxic and terrible. Thankfully, most Americans seem to disapprove of it strongly, even if a lot of it is legal in the U.S. Advertisers don’t like it, either, and it’s hard to imagine Twitter thriving as a business without the kind of content moderation it has put in place over the past few years.

But a willingness to license music reflects a willingness to comply with other dull but important rules, from regulations on deceptive advertising to laws governing stock manipulation. Violators rarely inspire the kind of public outrage that convinces companies to clean up their own acts, and Musk seems to regard these types of rules with contempt. In 2018, he entered into a consent decree with the Securities and Exchange Commission to resolve claims that he had defrauded investors by tweeting that he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private. In 2020, he tweeted this: “SEC, three letter acronym, middle word is Elon’s.” Musk is entitled to his opinion about the SEC – that’s what free speech is about. But there are restrictions about what CEOs can say about their plans for a public company that protect investors – just like there are restrictions on how music can be used online, to ensure that the world’s music creators can earn a living/to protect creators’ rights.

Musk built his reputation, and his considerable wealth, by making big, bold bets on the future. But his ideas about Twitter seem to reflect a view of the internet as a place without laws or any form of content moderation, at a time when most companies are moving in the opposite direction. The internet without rules didn’t work – for society, for consumers, and even for the companies in question. The future is in creating a better user experience, and that means moderating content, monitoring fraud and, yes, licensing music. (Does anyone with a subscription to Spotify really miss Napster?) This time it looks like Musk is betting on the past.

For the Record: Will ‘Free Speech’ Keep Free Music on Twitter? For the Record is the new Billboard column from deputy editorial director Robert Levine analyzing news and trends in the music industry. Is Elon Musk a “pedo guy?” This is the kind of nonsense we can expect more of on Twitter, which Musk recently arranged…