For more than six months, the Federal Trade Commission has been investigating Twitter’s security practices, following an explosive whistleblower complaint accusing the company of violating a 2011 settlement that required it implement privacy safeguards.
Now, the inquiry has earned the ire of House Republicans, who argue that the agency is using its privacy probe to thwart Musk’s absolutist vision of free speech on Twitter — a startling example, they say, of liberal overreach.
Republicans fanned these allegations at a combative Thursday hearing on Capitol Hill led by House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), releasing an 18-page report including excerpts of letters from the FTC to Twitter and accusing the FTC of “orchestrating an aggressive campaign to harass Twitter” and deluging the company with demands. The report asserts that the investigation is the result of “partisan pressure to target Twitter and silence Musk.”
The political salvo is a challenge to more than a decade of efforts at the FTC to improve privacy and security standards at Twitter, which entered under a consent order with the agency following a pair of 2009 security incidents. Republicans and Democrats have largely been united in their concerns about Twitter’s handling of data security and privacy, but Thursday’s hearing sets up the probe as political lightning rod.
The contentious, more than two-hour hearing was peppered with arguments between Jordan and Rep. Stacey E. Plaskett, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government. The pair frequently interrupted each other as the hearing meandered from topics that included the intelligence community’s use of social media, covid misinformation and the rapper Ye’s inflammatory tweets.
Plaskett said in her opening statement that Republicans were promoting a false narrative and parroting Musk’s talking points. She said the FTC’s broad outreach to Twitter shows that the agency has “extraordinarily serious concerns” about the company’s handling of consumers’ data.
“There is something going on between Congressional Republicans and Elon Musk,” she said. “Mr. Chairman, Americans can see through this. Musk is helping you out politically, and you’re going out of your way to promote and protect him, and to praise him for his work.”
Plaskett’s criticism comes as the GOP embraces Elon Musk, celebrating his efforts to unwind years of work on content moderation at the social media company. At another Twitter hearing last month, multiple Republicans praised God for Musk’s leadership of the company, as he bolsters conservative accusations that the company’s former leaders suppressed their political views. Shortly after taking over Twitter, Musk instructed his millions of followers to vote for Republicans in the midterm elections. He also recently met with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.
Musk’s coziness with Republicans and leadership of the social network has been met with backlash from Democrats. Some Democratic lawmakers last year called the FTC to investigate whether Musk was in violation of the company’s FTC order.
Jordan responded by calling Plaskett’s statements “ridiculous.” Jordan and Plaskett argued over the access that House Republicans granted Democrats to the full copies of the FTC letters. Plaskett said that Jordan’s staff did not give her staff a chance to review them until 8 p.m. the night before the hearing.
The partisan attacks could be just the beginning of new challenges for the Democratic Federal Trade Commission chair, Lina Khan, whose ambitious agenda to regulate the tech industry is expected to face greater scrutiny and oversight now that Republicans control the House of Representatives.
FTC spokesman Douglas Farrar declined to comment on how the agency planned to navigate greater scrutiny from a Republican Congress. In a Twitter thread Wednesday, he said FTC investigations “are straightforward and nonpolitical.”
“The consent order the FTC has with Twitter isn’t about Musk’s acquisition of the company or their content moderation policies,” he tweeted. “This isn’t about free speech, it’s about the FTC doing its job to protect Americans’ privacy.”
The attack against the FTC is the latest development in a broader GOP effort to show that Democrats are improperly pressuring social media companies to advance their political aims. Jordan argued repeatedly that his political opponents ignored the First Amendment and protections for journalists, in service of a smear campaign against Musk.
Former FTC officials argue the Republicans’ report lacks substance or context about the agency’s work on Twitter, which has largely been bipartisan.
“This is just bullsh--,” said David Vladeck, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC when Twitter was first put under order.
House Republicans did not release full copies of the letters from the FTC to Twitter. The letters were not provided by the agency, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Russell Dye, a spokesman for Jordan, said they were provided by a “concerned party.”
The Republicans’ report highlighted an FTC demand that Twitter “identify all journalists and other members of the media to whom You have granted any type of access to the Company’s internal communications.” The agency sent the request after the release of the Twitter Files, internal company communications that have fueled accusations that Twitter’s former leaders suppressed conservative views. Two of the writers that the FTC demanded details about — Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger — appeared at Thursday’s hearing as witnesses.
Jordan zeroed in on these demands in during line of questioning, asking the writers if they found it “scary” that the federal government was asking about the company’s communications with them.
“It’s none of the government’s business which journalists a private company talks to and why,” Taibbi said in response.
Plaskett argued the Twitter Files writers cherry picked examples from a vast trove of internal company emails, noting that Taibbi published roughly 300 emails from a vast trove of close to 100,000.
The FTC cited reports that said the Twitter Files writers had “broad and expanding access to Twitter’s files” and “extensive unfiltered access to Twitter’s internal communication and systems,” according to a screenshot of the letter in the Republicans’ report. Musk instructed subordinates to give former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss “full access to everything at Twitter” without any limits, according to a Signal message viewed by The Post and reported in December. The request prompted concerns among Twitter staffers, who warned it might violate the FTC settlement.
During questioning, Taibbi confirmed he had unfiltered access to Twitter’s internal communications and systems, but clarified that the writers “did not have access to personal information of any kind.”
Democrats at times blundered in their quest to illuminate whether the writers had agreed to improper conditions to access Twitter internal documents. When Rep. Sylvia Rodriguez Garcia (D-Texas) cited a post Taibbi had shared on the email newsletter platform Substack, she said she was confused about what Substack was and questioned whether it was a web page.
The hearing signals increasing divisions between Democrats and Republicans over the future of regulating social media. Democrats continue to warn about the proliferation of disinformation on social media, while Republicans are using their new power in Congress to criticize any government efforts to interact with major tech companies.
In contentious remarks, Plaskett accused the Twitter Files writers of endangering the safety of former Twitter employees, citing the wave of harassment and attacks directed at former employees online. She played a video of former Twitter Trust and Safety chief Yoel Roth’s recent Capitol Hill testimony, where he said he had to sell his home in the wake of threats and media reports that exposed his address.
“This is a new Republican playbook apparently, risk Americans’ safety and security to score political points,” she said.
Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.