For Musk’s lawyers, it was the opening salvo of a strategy that should rely more on claims by whistleblower Peiter Zatko, Twitter’s former chief security officer.
“Mr. Zatko, who was responsible for much of this – including handling and removing various spam bots – was not a low-level employee,” Musk’s attorney Alex Spiro said. “He was one of the best officers in the business.”
“The way Mr. Zatko put it, management had no desire to properly measure bot accounts,” he said.
Twitter’s lawyers, on the other hand, held firm on the data requests, citing the sensitivity of the information.
In the 84-page complaint obtained per The Post, Zatko alleges that Twitter lied to Musk about bots and spam accounts, and that the site had glaring security flaws that cast doubt on the validity of his statements to federal regulators — and possibly too to Musk. Still, there was little solid documentation to back up his claims about spam and bots, and he left the company months before Musk decided to acquire the company.
Lawyers for Musk and Twitter were appearing in Delaware Chancery Court for a discovery hearing in their ongoing dispute. Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, announced he was ending his $44 billion deal to buy Twitter in July over concerns about Twitter’s counting of bot and spam profiles, which Musk said , greatly underestimates the true number of inauthentic accounts. Twitter sued Musk for breach of contract days later. Musk filed a countersuit end of July.
Musk had become increasingly vocal about his concerns about spam and bots amid a slowdown in tech stocks and the pressure on Tesla began to chip away at his net worth. This had led to questions about Musk’s ability to fund the deal.
Wednesday’s hearing concerned Musk’s team’s ability to demand information about Twitter’s internal practices and data. The judge previously ruled against Musk’s team when it sought to gather information from more than 20 business leaders. One such executive that Musk’s team asked for information was Zatko. But the judge denied the request, raising the possibility that Musk’s team would use the new revelations to revisit the request.
Twitter has previously challenged the characterizations made by the whistleblower and by Musk regarding spam and bots. Several leading artificial intelligence experts have publicly backed Twitter’s methodology for its spam and bot calculations.
Twitter attorney Bradley Wilson argued in court Wednesday that the spam count was only an estimate, backed up by regulatory disclosures that highlighted the inaccurate nature of the count.
“We have an inherently subjective assessment,” Wilson said. “Twitter was estimating and it was very candid that that’s what he was doing.”
He also noted that some of Musk’s teams were asking to “explicitly look for private data,” which the company was unwilling to release, including users’ IP addresses, phone numbers, and location information.
The hearing opened on Wednesday with Spiro arguing that Twitter was flip-flopping on its reasoning for not offering data to Musk’s team, data he says is important to understanding what’s really going on. in the social media company.
“There’s this back and forth, and each time the goal posts seem to move,” Spiro alleged, referring to requests for more spam and bot-related data.
“We’re the potential buyer here and we don’t even know what’s out there,” Spiro said of the data he claimed Twitter was blocking. “That puts us at a huge disadvantage.”
He also alleged that he had a long history of deception around his user numbers. He argued that Twitter’s growth has leveled off for years and the company changed the way it calculated its user count in 2019 to make it look like there was more growth. Spiro said this underlying deception is one of the reasons the judge should grant their demands for more data.
Twitter said it invented the new way to calculate growth, in 2019, to give investors a clearer picture of the company’s status.
Spiro raised allegations directly from Zatko’s complaint, saying that Twitter shut down a key tool, internally called ROPO, for “read-only phone”, prevents an account from tweeting until a user can prove that it is related to a real person. He claimed a senior executive was planning to shut it down completely. The Post previously reported that ROPO was never closed and that the executive proposed an overhaul, not a closure.
Wilson objected to giving private data to Musk’s team, citing user privacy concerns and fears that such information would “fall into the wrong hands.”
He specifically pointed to Musk as a problem. Twitter would lose control of the data and anonymous responders could be unmasked, as well as leaked private messages.
“He is someone who has publicly mocked Twitter. Who has insinuated that this litigation will be used as a vehicle to publicly leak internal Twitter data. And who has recently and publicly reaffirmed that if he is able to get out of the contract he signed, his plan is to start a competing business,” Wilson added.