Future Tense

A Senator Thinks Elon Musk’s Foreign Entanglements Are a Problem

A man in a suit standing in front of a wall points with both hands as he speaks; someone is holding a voice recorder to his face.
Sen. Chris Murphy departs the Senate floor following a vote to proceed to the Inflation Reduction Act on Aug. 6. Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images

On Oct. 31, Sen. Chris Murphy sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Murphy is a Democrat from Connecticut who sits on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, and he had some questions about Twitter, specifically about the Saudi stake in Twitter. The Kingdom Holding Co. and the private office of Prince Al Waleed bin Talal owned Twitter shares worth $1.89 billion. They held onto that stake when Twitter went private under Elon Musk’s control. The Saudis are now the second largest investor in Twitter, which for Murphy raises some potential national security concerns that he would like to see evaluated by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, also known as CFIUS. In a press conference on Wednesday, President Biden seemed to agree, saying, “I think that Elon Musk’s cooperation and/or technical relationships with other countries is worthy of being looked at. Whether or not he’s doing anything inappropriate—I’m not suggesting that. I’m suggesting they’re worth being looked at.”

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So, I called up Murphy on Thursday afternoon to talk about it, and some of the other major tech challenges facing Congress. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: I’m going to do a quick disclosure that we did go to college together, though you were two years ahead of me, but just so that’s out there.

Chris Murphy: Older and wiser.

I’m going to get right to it. You asked for CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., to review Saudi Arabia’s stake in Twitter. Do you know if that review is currently happening?

I don’t. I’ve made the request. I have not heard a response. I think it’s pretty standard practice for CFIUS to take a look at a major foreign investment like this in a pretty significant social media and communications company, and I hope to hear from them soon.

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It seemed like the president backed your desire for some sort of retroactive investigation on Wednesday. Why do you think he’s interested in this now?

I think that there’s a real question as to why the Saudis didn’t take their money out like most everybody else did. I think it would’ve been financially wise for them to do. The Saudis may have kept their money in given promises Musk made to them about things he would do with respect to content that the Saudis didn’t like. It just makes sense for us to investigate exactly why the Saudis decided to participate with Musk in this purchase, and what the implications are for the United States.

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Let’s just be clear. Musk is presenting his purchase as a means to promote free speech. The Saudis are an unlikely partner, if Musk is buying Twitter in order to open up channels of political dissent. The Saudi’s interest is exactly the opposite. So, I just think it makes sense for us to try to understand exactly what the Saudis are getting out of this. If it’s just a financial investment, there’s no strings attached, maybe CFIUS blesses it and it moves forward, but we should at least ask those questions.

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You raised your concerns to Secretary Yellen on Oct. 31. Have you gotten any feedback from Treasury since then?

I haven’t. We’ve also expressed an interest to the White House. I think it’s time for us to all step back and reconsider what I think is going to be a growing trend of foreign nations investing in U.S. media companies and social media platforms. Frankly, the Saudi’s investment in Twitter freaks me out less than the Chinese government’s relationship to TikTok. I think it’s probably time for us to really think about what it means for political debate, what it means for the health of our kids and families, that these big foreign governments, often adversaries of the United States, increasingly have a pretty clear line into our most important means of communication.

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I was actually about to ask you about TikTok. Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mike Gallagher have just basically said the app should be banned in America. Do you agree with that?

I think if we can’t unwind the Chinese government’s connection with TikTok, the downside outweighs the upside. Listen, my kids are addicted to TikTok, but it’s candy. It’s not providing a ton of value. It can be so easily manipulated by the Chinese to promote either sort of quiet or very loud propaganda. The ability to collect [information] on our kids and Americans in general is incredibly scary.

I get that a lot of people love TikTok. I get that it is an incredibly powerful medium for artists to communicate, so I maybe shouldn’t be so harsh on the product. Obviously has a lot of value for people in this country. But the security concerns around TikTok, the way in which the Chinese can gather information, the way in which they can message to Americans is I think, really scary.

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Do you have similar national security concerns about Starlink, and Elon Musk’s tweets about Russia and about Ukraine?

My primary concern right now is about Elon Musk’s partners, but I think President Biden is perhaps opening up a broader conversation about questions we may need to ask about Musk’s business relationships in Russia and in China. I don’t have deep knowledge of those relationships, but as he continues to increase his influence and his ownership stake in critical U.S. companies, it makes sense to just make sure we know the extent of his relationships with foreign governments.

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CFIUS has the authority to retroactively undo acquisitions, which it did do during the Trump administration. Would you like to see that happen with Twitter?

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I’m not prejudging the findings here. I think CFIUS should sort of require some disclosure about the agreements that may or may not exist between the Saudis, Kingdom Holdings, and Twitter. It may be that CFIUS comes to the conclusion that there isn’t any nefarious intent, but we should at least ask the questions. Hopefully, with President Biden’s comments this week, that process will begin.

One of the things you wrote in your letter was that if CFIUS doesn’t act, then Congress should. What would that look like? Would Elon Musk even listen to you all? After all, he has repeatedly thumbed his nose at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission.

As you referenced, there is a growing bipartisan interest in foreign government ownership and stake in U.S. media companies. For the time being, it seems as if Elon Musk is a bit of a darling inside the Republican Party, so query whether people like Marco Rubio or Rep. Gallagher would be as interested in taking on the question of Elon Musk’s partners in Twitter as they are about the Chinese stake in TikTok. But I do think that there is going to be some growing bipartisan consensus that we should be really careful about foreign governments owning companies that have this broad access to American’s private information. So, I don’t think that Elon Musk should feel that he is immune from either investigation or regulation, because I think this train is coming. There’s not a lot of bipartisan agreement in Washington, but the Venn diagram increasingly has a lot of dark shade when it comes to foreign government’s ownership of technology companies.

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You’re one of the younger members of the Senate. You are actually on Twitter a decent amount. What do you think of the platform since he’s taken over?

I haven’t seen so far a lot of changes that directly impact me. Yesterday, for two hours—

Nobody’s paying eight bucks and saying, “I’m Chris Murphy.”

I’m not paying. Look, there’s plenty of accounts out there with my name attached to it, but I’m lucky that I have enough followers that people don’t need the blue check to know which one is me. Yesterday I had a new little tag attached to my name for about two hours before it disappeared. [Editor’s note: On Thursday evening, Twitter brought back the “Official” tag for some accounts, though as of Friday morning, it isn’t appearing on Murphy’s.] So, clearly there’s a lot of experimentation happening in the early days of Elon Musk’s tenure there, but I haven’t been among those who have been apocalyptic about the experience as a user. I’m willing to give him time. I have gained a lot of value from Twitter over the years as a means through which I communicate my ideas, means through which I talk to my constituents. It’s the way that I get a lot of my political information.

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So, I’m hoping that it stays a platform that has a lot of utility for people like me, and I’m willing to adopt a bit of a wait and see approach. I don’t want my interest in the Saudi stake to give the impression that I am piling on. I think Eon Musk has done a lot of really beneficial things for the world. I think his technology is world-changing, and we should appreciate what he has done with respect to battery technology and electric vehicle technology. I don’t necessarily think that he’s an illegitimate owner of Twitter. I just want to make sure that it remains a place where both sides get hurt equally.

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I want to ask you about a piece you wrote for the Atlantic about neoliberalism that includes some thoughts about technology. You said that Democrats, not Republicans, are the natural party to make sure that technology works for people instead of people working for technology. Yet Democrats have been in power in the House and the Senate and the presidency and the two big bills that are supposed to “take on big tech” are just sort of languishing. Why?

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I think it’s a mistake. I think that we should be pushing forward legislation that both sort of breaks up or attempts to control some of these big tech monopolies, but also legislation that protects our kids and our data and our privacy.

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Should they come to the floor in the lame-duck session?

I don’t know that we’re going to have time to bring them to the floor in the lame-duck session, because we’re going to have to process in the Senate a ton of nominees, a budget, a handful of other really important pieces of legislation. But I would hope that this is at the top of our agenda next year. Listen, I think that there’s a broad national exhaustion with the pace of technological change. I think there are a lot of families out there, a lot of parents, who feel like technology is sort of owning them instead of technology working for them. They want to know that when their kids are on these sites they’re protected, and they don’t feel that way right now.

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So, to me, there’s a lot of space for Democrats to lead on the issue of tech regulation, of protecting our data, protecting our kids. Right now, I think a lot of Americans think that Republicans are the sort of more legitimate tech critics, but they, as I argue in that Atlantic piece, are so antithetical or so allergic to government regulation that I don’t think they’ll ever be able to pass the kind of legislation that families want.

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But Democrats haven’t passed it, and they’ve been in power.

I agree. So, let’s change that. I think we have had other priorities. I think that there is a subset of the Democratic Party that believes in this neoliberal view that technology only exists in a beneficial cycle of innovation, and that regulations would stifle this as a growth industry in the United States. I don’t believe those things. I think tech will continue to grow in the United States even if we have more significant regulation, and the Democratic Party needs to start acting with more purpose when it comes to technology policy.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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