A committee in question is called the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which is set up to scrutinise the work of the government and is not to be confused with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, though it helpfully has almost the same acronym and concerns itself with similar things.
The DCMSC published a letter from its chair Julian Knight to Elon Musk on Twitter, headed ‘invitation to speak to UK MPs following the Twitter acquisition.’
The invite references various UK specific reports and legislation regarding social media and suggests that following his successful bid to buy Twitter, speaking before the committee would give Musk a chance to ‘address any critiques in public.’
The Tesla and Space X founder had his offer to buy Twitter outright for $44 million initially met with resistance from the board. Within a few days however the offer was accepted, though it’s not locked in yet.
It’s a bit silly to suggest that Musk, who can barely seem to help himself from airing his thoughts to his 90 million followers on Twitter, would need a UK parliamentary committee – which a lot of people in this country won’t be familiar with – as a platform to publicly address his critics.
This mismatching of posturing with reality is starting to define the UK government’s stance towards multinational technology companies, the most significant of which are all based in other countries. Why stop at Musk? There are plenty of mergers and acquisitions that go on in tech, many of which could be argued to have societal effects of some sort. Will this UK committee be summoning any more Silicon Valley execs to its offices to explain what it is they think they’re up to?
There’s just something in the way the DCMS in particular carries itself in open discourse that tries to suggest it has much more power than it really does. You can see this in the announcement yesterday, in which it openly pondered whether it will enforce a new code of practice on app stores, such as those from Apple and Google, which would mean millions of apps would need to abide by new rules presumably defined by some UK MPs.
The EU and the US are both engaged in some aggressive legal manoeuvres towards big tech at the moment, but they have the weight of 27 member nations and the world’s largest economy behind them respectively. They have heft in other words that the UK acting alone objectively does not command – you don’t have to be riddled with post-Brexit malaise to identify this. But the UK politicians interfacing with the tech industry carry on sometimes as if they do not see this distinction.
It might be that they have specific concerns, such as how any changes to Twitter would effect the Online Safety Bill, for example. It could also be seen as fairly shallow grandstanding from a parliament who wouldn’t mind projecting the image that it stands shoulder to shoulder with the EU and US when it comes to facing down big tech – it was after all done entirely publicly. Who knows if they genuinely expect Musk to turn up.
That being said, the UK is of course a major economy and if Musk does indeed see Twitter as the modern town square, fundamental to society and capable of altering things significantly for better or worse, it wouldn’t do his case any harm to lay out exactly what it is he intends to change, and how it will make everything better. For example, there are rumblings from Twitter’s open-source offshoot Bluesky with regards to decentralized social network protocols, which if adopted could change the nature of Twitter by making its algorithms more open sourced.
Whether he chooses to go through all this directly with an MP called Julian Knight in a London meeting room, is another question