By Brian Fung, CNN
Washington (CNN) — Four US senators are scrutinizing Twitter’s privacy practices and questioning whether the platform under CEO Elon Musk may have flouted consumer protection laws following widespread layoffs and resignations — an inquiry that could highlight vast legal risks for Twitter and potentially for Musk himself.
In a letter dated Sunday and addressed to Musk and Linda Yaccarino, Twitter’s incoming CEO, lawmakers cited last week’s high-profile departure by Ella Irwin, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, as the latest source of concern about Twitter’s compliance track record.
Sweeping staff changes at Twitter, combined with the “hasty launch of new products” such as Twitter Blue, have repeatedly raised doubts about the company’s ability to meet its legal obligations under two consent orders signed with the Federal Trade Commission in 2022 and 2011, the lawmakers wrote.
“Mr. Musk’s behavior reveals an apparent indifference towards Twitter’s longstanding legal obligations, which did not disappear when Mr. Musk took over the company,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by CNN. “Regardless of his personal wealth, Mr. Musk is not exempt from the law, and neither is the company he purchased.”
The letter was signed by Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden; Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey; and Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono. Twitter didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawmakers asked Musk and Yaccarino to respond to a series of questions about Twitter’s FTC obligations and whether the layoffs and resignations have hindered its ability to comply.
In particular, the letter asks whether Twitter conducted a privacy and security assessment of Twitter Blue, its paid subscription service, before rolling it out earlier this year. Under its 2022 consent agreement, Twitter is required to perform such assessments “prior to implementing any new or modified product.”
The letter also asks whether Twitter has maintained a comprehensive cybersecurity program to protect user data since Musk’s takeover and whether Twitter has met various reporting requirements, including obligations to report any significant data breaches to the authorities.
The lawmakers asked Twitter to respond by June 18.
Elon Musk under Twitter
Since purchasing Twitter, Musk has said he’s laid off more than 6,000 employees, or roughly 80% of the company’s pre-acquisition headcount. The cuts, which in some cases eliminated entire teams, have coincided with frequent outages of Twitter’s service and raised questions about the company’s commitment to effective content moderation and other priorities.
Twitter is already under investigation by the FTC for possible breaches of its consent orders. The agency confirmed the investigation in a rare public statement last year. The probe is linked to allegations made by Twitter’s former head of security, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, in a whistleblower report first disclosed by CNN and The Washington Post. Zatko claimed, among other things, that Twitter did not implement effective security policies as required and was extremely vulnerable to penetration by foreign spies.
Zatko’s allegations predated Musk’s takeover. But as both the FTC and now the senators have indicated, Twitter’s behavior under Musk is also covered by the consent agreements. Legal experts have said that proven violations of the consent orders could result in billions of dollars in fines for the company, along with possible restrictions on Twitter’s business and even individual sanctions for executives deemed responsible for the misconduct.
Musk has some defenders in Congress. House Republicans have alleged that the FTC probe is intended to “harass” Musk and represents an example of the “weaponization” of the US government. The FTC has said the investigation is intended to determine whether Twitter is complying with its legal obligations under the consent orders, consistent with the agency’s broader consumer protection mandate from Congress.
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