Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2024
Over the past few months, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has begun an investigation against Twitter, specifically into Elon Musk’s personal role in various high-profile decisions including massive layoffs, rapid changes to Twitter’s features and the sharing of internal company records with journalists.
What is the FTC seeking to accomplish?
After a series of incidents in which Twitter broke its promises to protect users’ privacy and security, Twitter has been under an FTC order since 2011. In 2022, Twitter also agreed to comply with new, more-intrusive sanctions as a part of a $150 million settled of new alleged violations.
The FTC’s hundreds of written demands to Twitter in recent months highlight their interest in the company’s decision-making processes, most notably the sheer number of layoffs and the sharing of private information with journalists. Twitter faces additional sanctions and even more severe financial penalties should it fail to comply with the commitments it agreed to under its deal with the FTC.
Specifically, in their demand letters, the FTC ordered the following to be released:
- An identification of all the journalists who were granted access to Twitter’s archives
- Any information regarding the massive layoffs and the Twitter Blue subscription service
- All internal communications related to Elon Musk
- An explanation as to why Twitter fired its deputy general counsel Jim Baker
The GOP-led House Judiciary Committee showed sympathy towards Twitter when it released a press release this past week stating that “there is no logical reason why the FTC needs to know the identities of journalists engaging with Twitter. There is no logical reason why the FTC, on the basis of user privacy, needs to analyze all of Twitter’s personnel decisions. And there is no logical reason why the FTC needs every single internal Twitter communication about Elon Musk.”
Twitter has the potential to face further punishment
David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor, previously ran the FTC’s consumer protection bureau. Vladeck made the following statement regarding the current investigation in Twitter: “Unless Twitter can really prove to the FTC that it is adhering carefully to the new consent decree, which has lots of provisions that are supposed to ensure compliance-monitoring, record-keeping, all those things, then they’re going to get another enforcement case.”
Additionally, Cobun Zweifel-Keegan, managing director at the International Association of Privacy Professionals, said the rapid-fire changes being made at Twitter could expose the company to legal risks, if regulators determine that the changes weren’t deliberated carefully as required under the FTC order.
Republican politicians are getting involved
Ted Cruz, a Republican Senator from Texas, and Jim Jordan, Republican House Judiciary Chair from Ohio, are teaming up to spearhead their own investigation into the FTC’s investigation of Twitter and Musk in an attempt to defend Elon Musk. Cruz and Jordan wrote a letter to Lina Khan, FTC Chair, stating that “FTC’s legal authority does not include dictating entire swaths of corporate behavior under the guise of consent decree enforcement nor could it justify infringing on the First Amendment, and Congress will not tolerate any retaliation against whistleblowers.”
The letter from Cruz and Jordan to the FTC had two clear goals:
- Obtain complete records of all documents and communications with members of the FTC relating to their Twitter investigation.
- Obtain a clear explanation “in writing” for the justification of the FTC asking Twitter to provide the names and members of the media who have been granted access to Twitter’s internal communications and documents.
Cruz and Jordan are receiving backlash
Spokespeople from the FTC have not remained silent in making it abundantly clear that the investigation against Twitter and Musk is not unusual or a direct dagger at larger technology companies like Twitter. The FTC frequently uses demand letters, as it did in its investigation with Twitter, to ensure companies are complying with consent orders. Additionally, FTC spokespeople have stated in direct opposition to Cruz and Jordan that “FTC investigations are straightforward and nonpolitical.” Further, “they are to ensure that companies are following the law, including protecting people’s privacy.”
Why is this important?
The FTC works to both protect and educate consumers. Without regulatory bodies like the FTC, companies like Twitter could continue to take advantage of its susceptible users, exposing extremely personal data. As such, it is crucial to have laws and regulations that force companies to utilize reasonable security measures to protect such user data.
Zweifel-Keegan stated that any time a decision is made quickly, it is inevitable that questions will arise concerning compliance with regulations and laws. This is important to note because at the end of the day, if Twitter is in compliance with the FTC’s orders and prioritizing users’ privacy and security, the company as a whole (and Musk) should have nothing to worry about.
FTC’s ongoing investigation into Twitter highlights that there are continued and enhanced measures for increasing protection for all internet users through enforcing laws and regulations that must be complied with. Ultimately, this issue with Twitter boils down to the FTC’s mission: “protecting the public from deceptive or unfair business practices and from unfair methods of competition through law enforcement, advocacy, research, and education.” Although the FTC has received backlash for its investigation into Twitter, it is essential to remember that the FTC is a regulatory body put in place to protect consumers and it must take these controversial measures to do just that.