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Europe, America fear Twitter job cuts mean it can't protect users

How will Elon conform to FTC decrees and EU laws? He probably doesn't know, either

It turns out that, when you buy the internet's "town square" and fire most of the people who run it, governments on both sides of the pond want to have a talk with you about user safety and security.

That's what Elon Musk has been learning since buying Twitter last year and laying off more than half the company's staff - at last count it was down to around 2,000 folks from more than 7,500 tweeps in the pre-Elon era. It wasn't until this week, however, that we got an actual look at how and why EU and US officials are scrutinizing Twitter and its new owner.

While the reasons the EU and the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have been DMing with Musk differ slightly, both come down to the same basic concern: Regulators don't seem confident that Twitter can fulfill its responsibilities to users and the law with so few people steering the ship.

The EU wants more human moderators …

The Financial Times said it spoke with four people familiar with talks between EU regulators, Musk and Twitter executives, the latter pair of whom were allegedly told by Brussels to hire human moderators and fact-checkers in order to comply with the EU's Digital Services Act.

Passed last year, the DSA includes provisions that require platforms to not only remove any speech which is illegal offline, but also to maintain transparency around how content is moderated. 

According to the FT's unnamed sources, Musk previously told EU Commissioner Thierry Breton that Twitter would lean into AI moderation practices and the company's "Community Notes" feature that allows trusted Twitter users to add context to tweets. Breton's response was reportedly that Twitter could moderate itself however it wanted, but that it had better hire more people to do so. 

One of Twitter's many personnel cuts were to its PR team, and as such it's been nearly impossible to reach anyone at the company to get a statement. FT did manage to get a reply out of Twitter regarding its talks with the EU, though, through which a spokesperson said the social media platform intended to fully comply with the DSA. 

… and the FTC is just plain worried

We've known the FTC was scrutinizing Twitter since Musk took it over - in November Musk told Twitter employees that the company would do "whatever it takes" to conform to the FTC's 2011 consent decree that required it to notify the Commission any time it made product changes.

That consent decree was reinforced in May of last year, prior to Musk closing his purchase of Twitter, when the FTC fined Twitter $150 million for violating the agreement, which banned Twitter from using customer data for targeted advertisements without their consent.

What wasn't clear prior to yesterday was the extent to which the FTC has been digging into Twitter since Musk's takeover. 

According to a report [PDF] from the US House Committee on the Judiciary's new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, more than a dozen FTC letters have been sent to Twitter since Musk's acquisition. The report claims the FTC "has been attempting to harass Twitter and pry into the company's decisions on matters outside of the FTC's mandate," but the report only includes brief excerpts from the FTC's requests to Twitter, leaving them devoid of context.

Some of the FTC's requests to Twitter, according to the Subcommittee report, were for the names of journalists who shared internal Twitter communications as part of Musk's "Twitter Files," all internal communications related to Elon Musk since he bought the company, information on the departure of Twitter lawyer Jim Baker and more data about the Twitter Blue paid verification scheme.

"The Committee does not dispute that protecting user privacy and mitigating information security risks are important duties … but the FTC is currently imposing some demands on Twitter that have no rational basis in user privacy," the Subcommittee said in its report.

But without the full FTC letters, it's impossible to glean the FTC's justification for requesting that data. We reached out to the Commission to ask some questions and look at the letters, but weren't told much.

"Protecting consumers’ privacy is exactly what the FTC is supposed to do. It should come as no surprise that career staff at the commission are conducting a rigorous investigation into Twitter’s compliance with a consent order that came into effect long before Mr. Musk purchased the company," an FTC spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

According to the WSJ's reading of the letters, the FTC is concerned that Twitter is delaying its responses, raising additional concerns about its compliance with the consent decree. The Commission is also seeking to depose Musk in connection with its investigation. 

We swear there's money in here somewhere

Meanwhile, Twitter/Tesla/SpaceX/Neuralink CEO Elon Musk seems unconcerned about the financial state of Twitter, having told attendees at the Morgan Stanley Conference yesterday that Twitter might break even or turn a profit in the second quarter of this year.

Musk told listeners that Twitter was working to make advertising more relevant to users, following a reduction in the number of advertisers late last year, and it's unclear how many major brands are left. It's also not entirely clear that other money making schemes, like paying for API access, will work as the site continues to become less stable with too few people to keep things running. 

Musk apparently said it was "startling" how much attention Twitter gets compared to how little money it makes – a ratio that probably hasn't improved since his takeover.

"We are concerned these staff reductions impact Twitter's ability to protect consumers' information," the WSJ quoted from a November 10 FTC letter to Twitter. 

Of the request for names of journalists, the FTC told Twitter on December 13 that it wanted to know about the nature of access granted to the individuals who published the Twitter Files to be sure it was "consistent with your privacy and information security obligations under the [consent decree]."

As for Baker's departure, part of his job revolved around ensuring compliance with the FTC consent decree, and he allegedly left due to a disagreement over handling of the Twitter Files and their publication. If that's true, it's understandable why the FTC may want to know more about his departure.

As for Twitter Blue, the FTC reportedly wants to know if Twitter is conducting in-depth privacy reviews, as required by the consent decree, prior to updating the product. Finally, given how involved Musk has been in deciding the course of the company - bad decisions and all - it's understandable the FTC would want to scrutinize any communication from, or about, Musk and his steering of Twitter.

You won't get that from the Subcommittee report, unfortunately, as it's hard to read it as anything but political. With quotes such as "Elon Musk… has reshaped Twitter to revitalize freedom of speech online" next to the reality of Twitter 2.0 and repeated cries in the report of how "the left" is the cause of Twitter losing advertising dollars and facing regulatory scrutiny – not the actions of its CEO – it's hard to take it very seriously. ®

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