House Republicans defend Musk from FTC 'harassment campaign'
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.
That investigation expanded in the wake of Elon Musk's takeover, as former employees warned that broad staff departures of key employees could leave the company unable to comply with the agreements it made with the FTC to protect data privacy.
Now, the inquiry has earned the ire of House Republicans, who argue 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 have fanned these allegations ahead of a 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.
Democrats plan to argue in the hearing that by defending Musk as the agency investigates his company, Jordan is doing the billionaire's "dirty work," according to one Democratic staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
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.
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 b-------," 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. 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."
Jordan said during a Tuesday interview on Fox News that he plans to focus on 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.
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.
Two of the writers that the FTC demanded details about - Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger - will appear at Thursday's hearing as witnesses.
Jordan said in the Fox News interview the agency's request amounted to "the most egregious threat to the First Amendment" that he's ever seen. The request has also prompted backlash from the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to strengthen public interest journalism, which said the FTC "should not have to violate the privacy of journalists to protect the privacy of Twitter users."
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.
Weiss and Shellenberger did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Taibbi tweeted that Twitter Files reporters "neither asked for nor received access to private user data."
The hearing signals increasing divisions between Democrats and Republicans over the future of regulating social media.
"Bottom line: both Democrats and Republicans should want the agency to figure out if there was a violation of the consent order or commitments to consumers," said former Democratic FTC chair Jon Leibowitz in an interview. "Keep in mind some of the most serious violations were under the stewardship of Jack Dorsey."
- - -
The Washington Post's Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.