Elon Musk’s Twitter sparked international outrage on Thursday by suspending a number of journalists at major news organizations who reported on him.
But another and possibly related move Twitter took around 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 reported on a controversy related to third-party tracking of Musk’s private jet, the platform also suspended rival Mastodon’s official Twitter account after tweeting about the ElonJet account.
Twitter users began tweeting links to their Mastodon profiles, some half-jokingly telling followers where to find them on the alternative platform in case they too were banned from Twitter without warning.
Soon, however, Twitter began putting up roadblocks by marking 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 could be anti-competitive or other legal implications as a result of Twitter’s blocking of Mastodon links.
“You could see all sorts of issues from both a competition standpoint and a consumer protection standpoint,” said Bill Baer, who has served as the former top antitrust officer at the Justice Department and at the Federal Trade Commission in two separate US governments.
Those questions, which on Twitter bring some of the antitrust investigation into the larger tech giants Meta and Google, come just as Twitter is increasingly questioned about its ability to comply with a US government consent order — along with concerns about hate speech. statements on the platform and the possible precedent set by the suspension of journalists reporting on Musk.
Twitter, which has cut off much of its public relations team, did not respond to a request for comment.
As news of journalist suspensions spread, many Twitter users announced they were migrating or expanding to Mastodon. But Twitter’s sudden restrictions on link sharing seemed to frustrate some attempts to direct 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 Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer, who shared a screenshot of a Twitter system message warning 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 generated error messages from Twitter 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 directing users to a Mastodon profile. By sharing Mastodon user handles as plain text and using link shortening services that hid the destination URL, users were able to get around the restrictions. But the link block continued until Friday afternoon.
Musk falsely claimed that the suspended journalists shared real-time information about his physical location, in violation of Twitter policy. After one of the suspended reporters challenged Musk’s claim in a Twitter Spaces event that Musk stopped by spontaneously Thursday night, the new Twitter owner abruptly left the conversation.
Eugen Rochko, the founder and CEO of Mastodon, has not publicly spoken out about Twitter’s blocking of links, but has issued a public report on it. CNN has contacted Rochko for comment.
While there are some differences in how the two platforms work, Mastodon’s user experience replicates much of the standard Twitter functionality. Twitter is much larger, with some 238 million users versus Mastodon’s one 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 only continued since then.
Twitter’s move to block links to an up-and-coming 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 new ways technology platforms could compete. harm.
If regulators could prove that Twitter deliberately used the link blocking to maintain some form of market dominance and keep a potential rival at bay, 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 said to have “market power” could potentially violate antitrust laws if it refuses to do business with other parties.
This notion of a “duty to deal” is probably most relevant to this situation, according to Charlotte Slaiman, director of competition policy at the consumer advocacy organization Public Knowledge and a former FTC antitrust officer.
“If Twitter has market power, it may have some duties to deal with competitors,” Slaiman said. “Duties to deal is an area of antitrust law that I think is very important in the technology sector, but has been aggressively curtailed over the past several decades.”
Under Khan, a vocal tech skeptic, the FTC has shown a greater interest in duty-to-deal 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 wider lawsuit to break up the social media giant. (The FTC complaint was later dismissed by a federal judge, but refiled with slightly different arguments on Khan’s watch.)
A case revolving around the duty to do business would probably have to argue that Twitter has somehow harmed itself by limiting the sharing of Mastodon links – perhaps by making itself less likely to receive inbound traffic from Mastodon , or by making itself less attractive to advertisers as an open platform . At the same time, it should also probably show that Twitter’s actions hurt Mastodon even more, by taking away something critical (in this case, possibly an influx of new users).
But that would require a judge to agree that Twitter has “market power,” or dominance in a specific market that regulators would have to describe and explain in each court case. That definition could take a variety of forms, but it would have to be passed in court before prosecutors would even have a chance to argue that Twitter’s conduct was anti-competitive.
It could be a tough case, Baer and Slaiman said.
Baer added that Twitter’s blocking of links doesn’t just raise potential competition concerns. It also raises questions about Twitter’s stated reasons 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 prior to Thursday, there seemed to be no reason for Twitter to claim that 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, the FTC could potentially try to argue that Twitter acted unfairly or deceptively, Baer said.
The FTC has traditionally had wide leeway to prosecute alleged unfair and deceptive business practices. And crucially, those things don’t require a show of market power.
With the FTC already closely scrutinizing Twitter’s behavior under Musk, the Mastodon issue could lead to further scrutiny that the company can afford little.