Twitter’s Brussels office is reportedly the latest casualty of Elon Musk’s takeover of the company, which comes at a time of accelerated EU regulatory scrutiny directed towards it and similar platforms. 

Since becoming CEO of the company in late October, ending a fraught journey towards finalising the $44 billion purchase of the platform, Musk has dismantled much of its internal staff structures, first firing its top executives, then handing out redundancies to swathes of staff and disbanding core teams. 

The company’s AI Ethics, Human Rights and Accessibility teams have been among those culled so far. Other departments, such as communications, curation and public policy, have also reportedly been hollowed out.

A significant number of staffers throughout the company have also chosen to leave their roles in response to developments, which also included an email from Musk explaining that employees would need to be “extremely hardcore” for Twitter to succeed, necessitating that they up their performance by “working long hours at high intensity”.  

According to reporting by the Financial Times, however, the last two remaining staff members working at Twitter’s Brussels headquarters have also left their positions, following the earlier departure of the team’s other four members, marking the complete closure of the office.

Although it is currently unclear if this shutdown will be temporary or permanent, it comes at a crucial time for tech regulation in Europe. Very large online platforms such as Twitter are presently tasked with figuring out how to comply with the Digital Service Act (DSA), the EU’s brand-new content moderation rulebook, which entered into force last week.  

A preliminary indication that the massive staff layoffs might spill compliance troubles for the platform in Europe will be shown by Twitter’s application of the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, a voluntary toolset that essentially anticipates the DSA and of which Twitter is a leading signatory.

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Since Musk took the company’s helm, Brussels has been sending muscular messages not to put its rules to the test. 

In response to a celebratory tweet saying “the bird is freed”, written by Musk at the closing of the deal in October, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton replied, “In Europe, the bird will fly by our rules”. Breton also pointed to a recording of a meeting with Musk in May, in which the billionaire said the DSA was “exactly aligned with my thinking”.

A worrying sign in this direction might come from another soft law, the Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online, on which the Commission on Thursday released the seventh assessment with depleted results compared to last year. 

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The code was adopted in 2016 in agreement with many major platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Microsoft, and has since gained other high-profile signatories including messaging service Viber and live streaming platform Twitch. 

Over the past year, 64.4% of notifications about online hate speech were reviewed by companies within 24 hours of receipt, a decrease from 81% in 2021 to 90.4% in 2020. Just one platform, TikTok, increased its individual performance. 

While the overall removal rate remained close to last year’s, rising from 62.5% in 2021 to 63.6% in 2022, only YouTube increased its rate on an individual level.

An average of 69.6% of content calling for murder or violence towards specific groups was removed, with a 59.3% removal rate for content containing defamatory wording or imagery about particular groups.

The situation has, however, improved when it comes to providing feedback to users from companies, with a number higher than the rates from the previous year. 

IT companies and trusted flaggers have also agreed on a new action framework to bolster their cooperation on content identification and removal, including through consolidated dialogue, more frequent meetings and increased visibility surrounding their work.

The Commission is now set to review how implementing the code can support compliance with the DSA, something the EU executive says could lead to its revision in 2023.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Nathalie Weatherald]

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