Musk’s Twitter play has some telecom implications

The biggest story in tech this week is without a doubt Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion and to take the company private. And while that deal doesn’t touch directly on wireless or wired telecom networks, there are some connections related to the FCC, spectrum and telecom policy.

First, no one is suggesting that the deal won’ happen. New Street Research policy analyst Blair Levin said there aren’t any big antitrust issues. It would be different if a social media competitor, such as Meta, were trying to buy Twitter. But Musk’s portfolio of companies, including Tesla and SpaceX, doesn’t include anything directly competitive. And Levin said, “It is unlikely in my opinion that there will be an FCC problem.” **

However, Musk may run into entanglements with the FCC, related to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, after he acquires Twitter.

Section 230 became an issue for a time toward the end of the Trump Administration. “Both Democrats and Republicans tended to favor a reform of Section 230 for different reasons,” said Levin.

Section 230 was enacted in the 1990s when big tech companies first began appearing on the scene. It was designed to provide a certain level of legal protection to companies that serve as platforms for the voices of others. “The idea was these platforms are not the New York Times, and we don’t want them to be subject to endless lawsuits for libel or defamation based on what’s being said about others,” said Levin. Still, individuals who defame or slander others can be sued.

The Section 230 framework worked fine for a couple of decades until the past several years when the culture wars have become so vitriolic.

Now, Republicans want some Section 230 reforms because they feel their voices are being “canceled” on platforms such as Twitter. And Democrats want some Section 230 reforms because they feel there is too much disinformation with no accountability.

Musk could find himself in the middle of all that and working with the FCC on Section 230 reforms.

Musk indicates he wants a simple, absolutist First Amendment approach. Unfortunately, First Amendment issues often aren't simple, and he has no experience as a publisher.

Giving one example off the top of his head, Levin said, “What if every time an African American tweets something, there are 1,000 racist comments? Where do you draw the line? How do you create a place friendly to users, friendly to advertisers and friendly to speech?”


Musk already has interactions with the FCC related to SpaceX. The company has become a factor in closing the digital divide with its Starlink low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites.

And it’s involved in a dispute about 12 GHz spectrum. It wants to use the band for Starlink, but Dish wants the spectrum for 5G. This month FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the agency’s engineers are studying whether the spectrum can be shared between satellite operators and 5G.

This dispute is likely to be decided before Musk owns Twitter. But there could be other spectrum issues that arise related to Starlink.

Levin said that Musk’s businesses all have considerable interactions with the government. “The most vulnerable is SpaceX. It would not be difficult for an FCC to decide spectrum disputes in ways that cannot be tied to Musk’s handling of Twitter but can shift the competitive environment in the space industry.”

**This sentence originally said the FCC would have to approve the deal, but since there are no FCC licenses, that won't be required.