Elon Musk’s Twitter blocked links to his rival Mastodon. That could raise alarm bells among regulators.


Elon Musk’s Twitter sparked an international outcry on Thursday by suspending several journalists at major news organizations covering it.

But a different and possibly related move Twitter took at the same time, against a fast-growing rival, could expose the company to regulatory scrutiny, some legal experts say.

In addition to suspending journalists who had been covering a controversy related to third-party tracking of Musk’s private jet, the platform also suspended rival Mastodon’s official Twitter account after it tweeted about ElonJet’s account.

Twitter users began tweeting links to their Mastodon profiles, some jokingly telling followers where they could find them on the alternative platform in case they too were banned from Twitter without warning.

Soon, however, Twitter began throwing obstacles: flagging links to Mastodon as “unsafe” and potentially malicious, blocking tweets containing those links, and preventing users from adding Mastodon links to their profiles.

Now, legal experts are wondering if there might be anti-competitive or other regulatory implications stemming from Twitter’s blocking of Mastodon links.

“You can see all kinds of issues, both from a competition standpoint and a consumer protection standpoint,” said Bill Baer, ​​who served as a former top antitrust official at the Justice Department and on the Federal Commission. of Commerce in two separate US administrations.

Those questions, which are generating some of the antitrust scrutiny on Twitter that has been directed at big tech giants Meta and Google, come just as Twitter is facing mounting questions about its ability to comply with a US government consent decree. ., along with concerns about hate speech. on the platform and the potential precedent set by his suspension of journalists reporting on Musk.

Twitter, which has removed much of its public relations team, did not respond to a request for comment.

As news of the journalists’ suspensions spread, many Twitter users announced that they would migrate or expand to Mastodon. But the sudden restrictions that Twitter placed on link sharing appeared to thwart some attempts to refer users to the alternative platform.

“Twitter is now trying to prevent its users from navigating to the official social media accounts of elected officials on other platforms,” said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., sharing a screenshot of a Twitter system message that warns that Beyer’s link to his Mastodon profile was “potentially spammy or unsafe.”

Other users, such as New York Times editor Patrick LaForge, noted that attempts to add Mastodon links to Twitter profiles resulted in Twitter error messages warning that the links were “considered malware.”

CNN confirmed some of the reports with its own testing and found that Twitter blocked attempts to tweet links that referred users to a Mastodon profile. Sharing Mastodon user identifiers as plain text and using link shortening services that masked the destination URL allowed users to circumvent the restrictions. But the blocking of the link continued until Friday afternoon.

Musk has falsely claimed that the suspended journalists shared real-time information about their physical location, in violation of Twitter’s policies. After one of the suspended reporters challenged Musk’s claim at a Twitter Spaces event that Musk showed up spontaneously Thursday night, Twitter’s new owner abruptly dropped the conversation.

Eugen Rochko, the founder and CEO of Mastodon, has not publicly referred to Twitter’s link blocking, but has expanded on a public report about it. CNN has reached out to Rochko for comment.

While there are some differences in how the two platforms work, Mastodon’s user experience replicates much of the basic functionality of Twitter. Twitter is much bigger, with some 238 million users to Mastodon’s 1 million, but the latter has grown rapidly since Musk acquired Twitter. In the first week and a half after Musk closed his Twitter deal, Mastodon gained hundreds of thousands of users, and the migration has continued ever since.

Twitter’s decision to block links to a nascent rival could be the kind of activity that piques the interest of the Federal Trade Commission, whose chair Lina Khan has vowed to crack down on novel ways tech platforms might try to harm to the competition.

If regulators could show that Twitter intentionally used link blocking to preserve a form of market dominance and keep a potential rival at bay, then they might have a case, legal experts say.

In general, companies are not required to do business with each other and are free to choose their business partners. But a dominant company that is said to have “market power” can potentially violate antitrust law if it refuses to deal with other parties.

This notion of a “duty to deal” is probably the most relevant to this situation, according to Charlotte Slaiman, director of competition policy at consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge and a former FTC antitrust official.

“If Twitter has market power, it may have some homework to deal with competitors,” Slaiman said. “Duties to deal is an area of ​​antitrust law that I think is really important in the technology sector, but it has been aggressively reduced” in recent decades.

Under Khan, a vocal technology skeptic, the FTC has shown increased interest in duty-to-deale cases through recent policy statements, Slaiman added. And during the Trump administration, the FTC alleged that Facebook had acted anticompetitively by effectively blocking access to Vine, a video platform owned by Twitter, as part of a broader lawsuit seeking to break up the social media giant. (The FTC’s complaint was later dismissed by a federal judge, but was refiled with slightly different arguments under Khan’s watch.)

A duty-to-negotiate case probably needs to argue that Twitter did a disservice in some way by restricting Mastodon link sharing, perhaps by making it less likely to receive incoming traffic from Mastodon, or by making itself less attractive. for advertisers as an open platform. . Simultaneously, it would probably also have to show that Twitter’s actions hurt Mastodon further, by taking something critical away from it (in this case, potentially, an influx of new users).

Before that, however, a judge would first have to agree that Twitter enjoys “market power” or dominance in a specific market that regulators are expected to describe and explain in any lawsuit. That definition could take a variety of forms, but it would have to be approved by the judge before prosecutors would have a chance to argue that Twitter’s conduct was anticompetitive.

It could be a difficult case, Baer and Slaiman said.

Baer added that Twitter’s link blocking doesn’t just raise potential competition concerns. He also raises questions about Twitter’s stated reasons for blocking the links and whether those public justifications hold up to the scrutiny of consumer protection officials.

As Beyer tweeted, the link he shared to his own Mastodon profile was not malicious. And before Thursday, there seemed to be no reason for Twitter to claim that Mastodon’s links were unsafe.

If Twitter misled the public with its statements about the Mastodon links, saying they were spam or malicious when the company knew they were harmless, for example, the FTC could try to argue that Twitter acted unfairly or deceptively, according to Baer.

Historically, the FTC has enjoyed wide latitude to prosecute allegedly deceptive and unfair trade practices. And more importantly, those cases do not require a demonstration of market power.

With the FTC already closely watching Twitter’s behavior under Musk, the Mastodon issue may lead to more scrutiny that the company can’t afford.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *