Elon Musk’s Twitter prohibited Mastodon. Regulators alarmed.

Elon Musk’s Twitter suspended several journalists who cover him on Thursday, sparking a worldwide outcry.

Some law experts suggest a different strategy Twitter made against a fast-growing rival may lead to regulatory scrutiny.

In addition to suspending journalists covering a scandal over third-party tracking of Musk’s private jet, the platform also suspended Mastodon’s Twitter account after it posted about ElonJet.

Twitter users began sharing links to their Mastodon profiles, half-jokingly informing followers where to find them if they were banned.

Twitter soon began censoring Mastodon links as “unsafe” and potentially dangerous, blocking tweets with them and prohibiting users from adding them to their profiles.

Legal experts wonder if Twitter’s restriction of Mastodon links has anticompetitive or regulatory repercussions.

“You could see all sorts of difficulties, both from a competition and consumer protection standpoint,” said Bill Baer, a former top antitrust officer in two US administrations.

These questions bring to Twitter some of the antitrust scrutiny levelled at Meta and Google. They come as Twitter faces intensifying questions about its ability to comply with a US government consent decree, along with concerns about hate speech on the platform and the possible precedent set by its suspension of journalists reporting on Musk.

Twitter didn’t reply to a request for comment after cutting PR staff.

Mastodon’s Twitter ban

Many Twitter users said they were going to Mastodon after the journalist suspensions. Twitter’s unexpected link-sharing limitations appeared to impede some attempts to refer people to the alternative network.

Rep. Don Beyer shared a snapshot of a Twitter system message indicating that Beyer’s Mastodon link was “possibly spammy or harmful.”

Other users, such as New York Times editor Patrick LaForge, noticed that Twitter error messages warned that Mastodon links were “virus.”

CNN’s testing validated certain stories, finding that Twitter banned Mastodon URLs. Sharing Mastodon user handles as plain text and using link-shortening services hid the destination URL. Friday afternoon was still blocked.

Musk falsely claimed suspended journalists divulged his real-time location, violating Twitter rules. Musk quickly exited a Twitter Spaces event when a suspended reporter questioned his assertion that he dropped in Thursday evening.

Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko has not publicly addressed Twitter’s link banning, but he has amplified a public report. CNN has contacted Rochko.

Growing rival

Mastodon’s user interface mimics Twitter’s core features. Mastodon has risen significantly since Musk bought Twitter, which has 238 million users. Since Musk ended his Twitter deal, Mastodon has attracted hundreds of thousands of users.

Twitter’s effort to prevent links to a budding rival may interest the FTC, whose chair, Lina Khan, has vowed to crack down on creative ways tech platforms stifle competition.

Legal experts think authorities may have a case if they can prove Twitter blocked links to maintain market dominance and keep a competition at bay.

Companies aren’t required to do business together and can choose their partners. If a dominating corporation with “market power” refuses to deal with other parties, they may break antitrust legislation.

Charlotte Slaiman, competition policy director at Public Knowledge and a former FTC antitrust official, says this position calls for a “responsibility to deal.”

Slaiman: “If Twitter has market power, it may have duties to competitors.” In recent decades, “duties to deal” have been restricted in the computer sector.

Khan, a tech sceptic, has increased the FTC’s interest in duty-to-deal issues, Slaiman said. During the Trump administration, the FTC asserted Facebook blocked access to Vine, a Twitter-owned video network, in a lawsuit to break up the social media behemoth. (A federal judge threw out the FTC lawsuit, but Khan re-filed it with revised claims.)

Complex case

A duty to deal case would need to establish that Twitter injured itself by blocking Mastodon link-sharing, either by reducing inbound traffic or advertising appeal. It would also need to establish that Twitter’s actions hurt Mastodon more by removing anything crucial (in this case, potentially, an influx of new users).

Before that, a judge must conclude that Twitter has “market power,” or dominance in a specific market that regulators must identify in a complaint. This definition could take many shapes, but it must pass muster with the judge before prosecutors can argue Twitter’s behaviour is anticompetitive.

Baer and Slaiman say it could be difficult.

Baer said Twitter’s link-blocking raises more than competition concerns. It raises issues regarding Twitter’s stated grounds for removing the links and whether consumer protection officials will accept them.

Beyer tweeted that his Mastodon link wasn’t malicious. Before Thursday, Twitter had no reason to call Mastodon links dangerous.

Baer said the FTC might allege Twitter acted unfairly or deceptively if it deceived the public about Mastodon links, suggesting they were spam or dangerous while the firm knew they were innocuous.

The FTC has considerable authority to prosecute unfair and misleading commercial practises. These scenarios don’t need market power.

Mastodon may lead to additional FTC investigation that Twitter cannot afford.

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