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POLITICO: Elon Musk gives Europe’s digital watchdogs their biggest test yet

17-11-2022 |

After Elon Musk bought Twitter — and fired almost anyone whose job it was to deal with regulators — the social networking giant is now facing a flood of legal challenges across the European Union.

The world's richest man is putting those EU enforcement powers to the test.

The question now is whether the EU's watchdogs can live up to their ambitions to be the world's digital policemen.

Ireland's privacy regulator wants to know whether the company's data protection standards are good enough. The European Commission doesn't know who to ask about its upcoming online content rules. The bloc's cybersecurity agencies raise concerns about an increase in online trolls and potential security risks.

Twitter's unfolding turmoil is precisely the regulatory challenge that Brussels has said it wants to take on. The 27-country bloc has positioned itself — via a flurry of privacy, content and digital competition rules — as the de facto enforcer for the Western world, expanding its digital rulebook beyond the EU's borders and urging other countries to follow its lead.

Europe's regulators have the largest collective rulebook to throw at companies suspected of potential breaches.

But a lack of willingness to act quickly — combined with the internal confusion engulfing Twitter — has so far hamstrung the bloc's enforcement role when it comes to holding Musk to Europe's standards, according to eight EU and national government officials, speaking privately to POLITICO.

Under the EU's General Data Protection Regulation, companies can be fined up to 4 percent of their annual global revenue for failing to keep people's personal information safe. The Irish regulator, which has responsibility for enforcing these rules against Twitter because the company's EU headquarters are in Dublin, has already doled out a €450,000 penalty for the firm's inability to keep data safe.

Meanwhile a key unanswered question is whether, in the wake of the mass layoffs, Twitter's operations in Dublin are either shuttered or cut back to an extent that regulatory decisions are made in California and not Ireland.

Such a change would lead the company to fall foul of strict provisions within Europe's privacy regime that require legal oversight of EU citizens' data to be made in a firm's headquarters within the 27-country bloc.