Elon Musk tried to meet with FTC chairman about Twitter but was rebuffed
Elon Musk tried to engage with the Federal Trade Commission as the agency intensified an investigation into Twitter’s privacy and data practices, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times, a sign of the billionaire’s hands-on approach in the survey.
Mr. Musk, owner of Twitter, asked to meet Lina Khan, the chairwoman of the FTC, but was turned down, according to the documents. Mr Musk made the attempt late last year, a person with knowledge of the matter said. In a Jan. 27 letter declining the meeting, Ms. Khan told a Twitter lawyer to focus on complying with investigators’ requests for information before considering meeting with Mr. Musk.
Mr. Musk spoke last month with the FTC’s only Republican commissioner, Christine Wilson, according to an email between agency staffers and two people familiar with the matter. Ms Wilson plans to leave the agency on Friday due to what she said were concerns over Ms Khan’s leadership.
Mr. Musk’s outreach to the FTC underscores the seriousness of the agency’s Twitter investigation. The investigation aims to determine whether the social media company has sufficient resources to protect the privacy of its users after Mr Musk bought it last year and then laid off thousands of employees. The agency separately sought to interview Mr. Musk for the investigation; the interview did not take place, a person with knowledge of the matter said.
It is rare for CEOs of companies to try to meet with the chairman and commissioners of the FTC while an investigation is underway. But such meetings sometimes occur when executives hope to convince senior agency officials that they are committed to fulfilling their promises to the FTC.
“If you thought you could just brush it off, and it wasn’t a big concern, you would just ignore it,” former FTC Chairman William Kovacic said. “If you think it’s important, that would be a reason to seek a meeting.”
Mr. Musk, Ms. Wilson and an FTC spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. A press request sent to Twitter triggered an auto-response email with a poo emoji.
The agency’s investigation is rooted in a 2011 settlement Twitter reached with the FTC over privacy concerns, which requires the company to maintain a user privacy program. Last May, Twitter paid a $150 million fine for alleged violations of this policy; at the same time, the FTC expanded the terms of the agreement to prohibit Twitter from using certain data to target ads and required it to offer specific security features.
Peiter Zatko, Twitter’s former chief security officer, said in a whistleblower complaint made public in August that the company failed to honor the terms of the 2011 agreement, renewing FTC investigations. The investigation widened after Mr. Musk took over Twitter in October and carried out mass layoffs, which were compounded by the resignations of privacy and compliance officers.
Inside Elon Musk’s Twitter
- Source code leak: Portions of the underlying computer code that Twitter runs on have been leaked online – a rare and major exposure of intellectual property.
- Decrease in value: Elon Musk said Twitter is now worth around $20 billion, according to an email he sent to employees, a significant drop from the $44 billion he paid to buy the company in October.
- Licensed music: Twitter reportedly explored licensing music rights from three major labels before negotiations bogged down following Musk’s takeover of the company last year.
- FTC investigation: The Federal Trade Commission is stepping up an investigation into Twitter’s data and privacy practices and is seeking testimony from Musk.
After Mr. Musk asked to meet with Ms. Khan, she consulted with the Enforcement Division within the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau, which is leading the Twitter investigation, according to the e-mail. email from agency staff describing the situation. Acting on the advice of the execution team, Ms Khan refused to meet Mr Musk at the time.
In Ms. Khan’s January 27 letter to Twitter, she noted that the company was under investigation and had dragged its heels in providing documents to the FTC, delaying depositions with witnesses, including Mr. Musk. . She said she was “troubled by Twitter’s delays and the hurdles those delays create for the FTC’s investigation.”
“I recommend that Twitter appropriately prioritize its legal obligations to provide the requested information,” she wrote. “Once Twitter has fully complied with all of the FTC’s requests, I would be happy to consider scheduling a meeting with Mr. Musk.”
The email between agency staffers discussing Mr. Musk’s outreach said he had spoken with Ms. Wilson, the Republican commissioner. They were joined on the call by James A. Kohm, the FTC official who oversees investigations into whether companies are sticking to their confidentiality agreements with the agency, according to the email.
Mr. Kohm did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Ms Wilson requested copies of the agency’s letters to Twitter demanding information and documents related to its compliance with the confidentiality agreement, a staff member said in the email.
In February, Ms Wilson said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that she would resign from the agency, citing Ms Khan’s “contempt for the rule of law and due process and the way in which senior FTC officials allow it.” The conversation with Mr. Musk took place after this op-ed was published, two people with knowledge of the matter said.
Mr. Musk has forged relationships with Republicans, who have applauded his vision of a Twitter free of policies restricting what can be said on the platform. Earlier this year, he met with Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio and head of a Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee subcommittee focused on the “militarization” of the federal government.
This month, that subcommittee released a report on the FTC’s Twitter investigation, accusing the agency of “orchestrated an aggressive campaign to harass Twitter.”
David Vladeck, a former director of the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau who served in the Obama administration, said speaking with a commissioner who isn’t the president was “not a smart strategy” for Mr. Musk, and that having a conversation with the agency’s only Republican might feel “more like politics.”
Mr. Musk has already spoken directly with members of the FTC, Mr. Kovacic said. After a group of aerospace companies announced a joint venture plan to challenge SpaceX, Mr. Musk’s rocket company, he met with FTC commissioners, including Mr. Kovacic, in 2006 to raise competition concerns.
Mr. Vladeck said the FTC could ultimately re-penalize Twitter for breaching privacy, potentially far more than its last $150 million fine.
As the FTC investigation intensified, Mr. Musk decided to modify certain features of the Twitter platform. It plans to remove verification checkmarks, the primary way the social network confirms a user’s identity, from notable figures including celebrities and others on Saturday if they are not signed up to Twitter Blue, a subscription service that costs $8 per month.
Twitter also plans to charge organizations $1,000 per month to be verified, but will make exceptions for its top 500 advertisers and the 10,000 most-followed organizations that have already been verified, according to an internal document seen by The Times. All accounts that purchase checkmarks will be reviewed to ensure they are not impersonating someone, according to the document.
ryan mac contributed report. Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.
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