BREAKING: Elon Musk, The World’s Richest Man, Says Twitter May Charge A Small Fee For Commercial And Government Users

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Elon Musk hinted that certain Twitter users may soon be charged fees, as the billionaire continues to tease how he plans to overhaul the network as its new owner. Musk, who bought Twitter for $44 billion last week, stated in a tweet that the network will “always remain free for casual users,” but that “commercial/government users” may incur a “slight premium.” The Tesla and SpaceX CEO disclosed the possibly huge upgrade as a follow-up to a more mysterious tweet he sent earlier Tuesday, saying, “Ultimately, the Freemasons’ demise was giving away their stonecutting talents for free.”

Musk’s suggestion that Twitter may start charging some corporate and government users comes as company employees and millions of Twitter users wait for details on how the takeover will affect the network he’s now attempting to privatize. Over the last week, politicians in the United States and Europe have been asking concerns about Musk’s acquisition. In his original statement announcing that his bid to purchase Twitter was accepted, Musk referred to Twitter as “the digital town square,” hinting at some changes to come. Musk added at the time, “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by adding new features, making the algorithms open source to improve trust, beating spam bots, and authenticating all people.”

That enigmatic plan is vague enough to leave people wondering about Musk’s intentions, but explicit enough to give various options as he attempts to mold Twitter to his liking. Musk may, for example, push for genuine names to be required on accounts. Alternatively, he might continue to accept pseudonyms but impose picture ID or interaction with third-party platforms where users are already recognized. The strategy might have significant repercussions for Twitter’s hundreds of millions of users, depending on the outcome. Musk’s attempt to “authenticate” Twitter users is motivated by one of his major Twitter pet peeves: spam accounts, particularly those that promote cryptocurrency schemes.

It didn’t help that Musk’s verified account was hacked in the summer of 2020, resulting in users such as former President Barack Obama and Kanye West unwittingly spreading a bitcoin scam. Musk has stated that cryptocurrency spam bots are Twitter’s “single most bothersome thing.” Musk’s diagnosis may represent the experiences of a very specific sort of user, but this user will soon be in charge of the platform’s design. Musk’s idea to “authenticate all actual humans” as part of his approach to combat bitcoin bots aims to make it easy to distinguish between real and false accounts.

If the platform’s purpose is to ensure that each account is linked to a genuine person, it will require a mechanism to verify that they are. An extension of Twitter’s existing verification scheme is one idea. Users must provide a link to an official website with which they are linked, an official email address, or a government-issued form of identity in order to obtain a blue check on their accounts. Musk might forego needing identification in favor of mandating users to use their true identities.

He might also look at other options, such as tying accounts to credit cards or relying more on CAPTCHAs to combat bots, according to Jillian York, director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s worldwide freedom of speech program. (CAPTCHAs, on the other hand, aren’t a panacea; as bots have become more clever, CAPTCHAs have had to become more and more difficult for humans to answer in a technical arms race.) Whatever approach Musk adopts, York and other experts predict that he will face access and privacy issues.

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The term “access” refers to guaranteeing that everyone who wants to use Twitter may do so. York claims that a system that attaches accounts to credit cards, for example, risks excluding everyone who doesn’t have one. Perhaps they are too young to have a credit card, or they have bad credit and are unable to obtain one. They may object to their credit card transactions being sold to data brokers, or they may just prefer to use cash for cultural reasons. According to York, tying authentication to consumer credit would “exclude millions of individuals.”

Then there’s the matter of confidentiality. While many users believe they have nothing to hide, forcing them to give personally identifying information creates a single point of failure. Not only would more users have to trust Twitter not to misuse their personal information, but Twitter itself would become a far more attractive target for authoritarian regimes (who may use legal demands to compel Twitter to hand over the data) or hackers seeking to steal identities. Cybercriminals have apparently pretended to be actual law enforcement personnel in order to fulfill bogus government demands for data from internet companies. Twitter may guarantee to destroy the information, but it would be only minimizing a danger it had created.

“Especially for people in countries like Russia and others where individuals get severely persecuted for criticizing the government or covering important political events like the protests, corruption, or the war in Ukraine,” Natalia Krapiva, an attorney at the digital rights group Access Now, said of the privacy issue. Even a no-real-names policy might be difficult to implement. Facebook has had some experience with this; in 2015, the corporation was compelled to amend its names policy after opponents pointed out that abuse victims and other vulnerable groups had legitimate reasons to adopt pseudonyms. Facebook’s changes raised the bar for reporting a fake name and allowed users to explain why they don’t use their real names to the company.

This demonstrates how difficult it may be to turn a seemingly simple notion like “authenticate all genuine humans” into a useful commercial feature. The problem isn’t with the purpose or motive; it’s with the fact that humans are complex beings with unique situations that rarely fit neatly into boxes. According to York, after years of trial and error, digital platforms have learned crucial insights regarding user authentication that might help Musk. “I think he’s in for a surprise if he just means stuff like CAPTCHAs,” York added. “He’s talked a lot about getting rid of bots, but Twitter has been trying to do that for years, and I believe he’ll quickly discover it’s not a simple problem to fix.”

Musk has also stated several times that he wants to improve “free expression” on Twitter, but he has not provided specifics on how he intends to do so. He also informed his 90 million Twitter followers that he is working to make Twitter Direct Messages end-to-end encrypted. Musk’s tweets, on the other hand, are notoriously tough to decipher. Musk also tweeted an apparent jest about “purchasing Coca-Cola to put the cocaine back in” in-between outlining future policy and product upgrades. In another tweet, he stated that he will change Twitter’s name to remove the “w.”

A request for comment from Twitter was not immediately returned. Musk promised banks that agreed to help fund his acquisition that he would explore new methods to monetize tweets and tighten down on executive and board compensation to help save expenses, according to Reuters late last week, citing unnamed persons familiar with the subject. “Until the deal complete, it is business as usual for us, including with regard to our products,” Twitter wrote in a recent statement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

“We’re continually iterating to make Twitter the best it can be for individuals using the service,” the firm noted in its filing. “If anything changes, we’ll make sure to communicate as we have in the past.” Musk told reporters at the Met Gala earlier this week that he wants to make Twitter “as widely inclusive as possible” and reaffirmed his pledge to cleanse the network of “bots and trolls.” Musk, who attended the ceremony with his mother, proceeded to voice his excitement about Twitter’s possibilities. “Hopefully, my good intentions do not build the way to hell,” he commented at one point.

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