Elon Musk’s Twitter sparked an international outcry on Thursday by suspending a number of journalists from major news outlets that cover it.
But a different and possibly related move Twitter made around the same time against a fast-growing rival could open the company up to regulatory scrutiny, some legal experts say.
In addition to suspending journalists who were covering a controversy related to the third-party tracking of Musk’s private jet, the platform also suspended the official Twitter account of its rival Mastodon after tweeting on the ElonJet account.
Twitter users began tweeting links to their Mastodon profiles, some half-jokingly telling their followers where they could be found on the alternative platform in case they too were banned from Twitter without warning.
Soon, however, Twitter began putting up roadblocks – marking links to Mastodon as “dangerous” 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 may be any anti-competitive or regulatory implications resulting from Twitter blocking Mastodon links.
“You can see all kinds of issues, both from a competition perspective and from a consumer protection perspective,” said Bill Baer, who served as the former top antitrust official for the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission in two separate US administrations.
The questions, which bear on Twitter part of the antitrust scrutiny that has been carried out on big tech giants Meta and Google, come just as Twitter faces mounting questions about its ability to complying with a US government consent decree – as well as concerns about hate speech on the platform and the possible precedent set by its suspension of journalists reporting on Musk.
Twitter, which cut much of its PR team, did not respond to a request for comment.
As news of the journalist suspensions spread, many Twitter users announced that they were migrating or expanding to Mastodon. But the sudden restrictions Twitter imposed on link sharing appeared to thwart some attempts to refer users to the alternative platform.
“Twitter is now attempting to block its users from navigating to the official social media accounts of elected officials on other platforms,” Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer said, sharing a screenshot of a post from Twitter. Twitter system warning that Beyer’s link to his Mastodon profile was “potentially spammy or dangerous.”
Other users, such as New York Times editor Patrick LaForge, observed that attempts to add Mastodon links to Twitter profiles produced error messages from Twitter warning that the links were “considered malware”.
CNN confirmed some of the reports with its own tests, finding that Twitter blocked attempts to tweet links directing users to a Mastodon profile. Sharing Mastodon users’ aliases as plain text and using link-shortening services that masked the destination URL allowed users to circumvent restrictions. But the blocking of the link continued until Friday afternoon.
Musk falsely claimed that the suspended reporters were sharing real-time information about his physical location, violating Twitter policies. After one of the suspended reporters challenged Musk’s claim at a Twitter Spaces event Musk spontaneously showed up to on Thursday night, Twitter’s new owner abruptly left the conversation.
Eugen Rochko, the founder and CEO of Mastodon, did not publicly address Twitter’s link blocking, but amplified 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 Twitter’s core functionality. Twitter is much larger, with some 238 million users compared to Mastodon’s one million, but the latter has grown rapidly since Musk acquired Twitter. In the first week and a half after Musk made his Twitter deal, Mastodon gained hundreds of thousands of users, and the migration has only continued since then.
Twitter’s decision to block links to a nascent rival could be the type of activity likely to pique the interest of the Federal Trade Commission, whose chairwoman Lina Khan has pledged to crack down on new ways technology platforms could attempt to harm competition.
If regulators can prove Twitter intentionally used link blocking to preserve some form of market dominance and keep a potential rival at bay, then they could have a case, legal experts say.
In general, companies are not obliged to do business with each other and can freely choose their business partners. But a dominant firm that is said to have “market power” can potentially violate antitrust law if it refuses to deal with other parties.
According to Charlotte Slaiman, director of competition policy at consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge and former FTC antitrust chief, this “duty to deal” notion is probably most relevant in this situation.
“If Twitter has market power, it may have duties to deal with competitors,” Slaiman said. “Obligations to deal are an area of antitrust law that I believe is very important in the technology industry, but which has been significantly reduced” over the past few decades.
Under Khan, a voice-tech skeptic, the FTC has shown increased interest in duty-to-treat cases through recent policy statements, Slaiman added. And during the Trump administration, the FTC alleged that Facebook acted anti-competitively by effectively blocking access to Vine, a video platform owned by Twitter, as part of a larger lawsuit seeking to break up the giant. social media. (The FTC complaint was later dismissed by a federal judge, but refiled with slightly different arguments under Khan’s watch.)
A duty-to-treat case should probably argue that Twitter hurt itself by restricting the sharing of Mastodon links – perhaps by making itself less likely to receive incoming traffic from Mastodon, or by making itself less attractive to advertisers as an open platform. Simultaneously, it would also likely need to be shown that Twitter’s actions are further harming Mastodon, 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 would be expected to outline and explain in any lawsuit. That definition could take a variety of forms, but it would have to be considered by the judge before prosecutors even had a chance to argue that Twitter’s conduct was anti-competitive.
It could be a tough case, Baer and Slaiman said.
Baer added that blocking links from Twitter not only raises potential competition concerns. It also raises questions about the reasons Twitter gives for blocking the links and whether those public justifications stand up to scrutiny by consumer protection officials.
As Beyer tweeted, the link he shared to his own Mastodon profile was not malicious. And before Thursday, Twitter seemed unfounded in claiming Mastodon links were unsafe.
If Twitter misled the public with its statements about Mastodon links, saying they were spam or malicious when the company knew they were harmless, for example, the FTC could potentially try to argue that Twitter acted unfairly or deceptively, according to Baer.
The FTC has always been given broad latitude to prosecute alleged unfair and deceptive trade practices. And above all, these cases do not require the demonstration of market power.
With the FTC already closely monitoring Twitter’s behavior under Musk, the Mastodon issue could lead to greater scrutiny than the company can ill afford.