Elon Musk’s Twitter post caused an international uproar on Thursday by suspending several journalists at major news organizations who cover it.
But some legal experts say a different and possibly related move Twitter took around the same time, against a fast-growing competitor, could open the company to regulatory scrutiny.
In addition to commenting to journalists covering a controversy involving third-party tracking of Musk’s private jet, the platform also suspended the official Twitter account of rival Mastodon after it tweeted about ElonJet’s account.
Twitter users began tweeting links to their Mastodon profiles, with some half-jokingly telling followers where they might be found on the alternative platform in case they too were banned from Twitter without notice.
However, Twitter soon began throwing up roadblocks — flagging Mastodon links as “unsafe” and potentially harmful, blocking tweets containing those links and preventing users from adding Mastodon links to their profiles.
Now, legal experts are considering whether there are anti-competitive or other regulatory implications arising from Twitter’s ban on Mastodon’s links.
“You can see all kinds of problems, both from a competition perspective and from a consumer protection standpoint,” said Bill Baer, who served as a former chief antitrust official at the Justice Department and at the Federal Trade Commission across two separate US departments.
The questions, which prompt Twitter some of the antitrust scrutiny that has been directed at major tech giants Meta and Google, come as Twitter faces intense questions about its ability to comply with the US government’s consent decree — along with concerns about hate speech on the platform and a possible precedent. Posted by commentary from journalists covering Musk.
Twitter, which has laid off a large portion of its public relations team, did not respond to a request for comment.
As news of the journalists’ suspension spread, several Twitter users announced they were migrating or expanding to the mastodon. But Twitter’s sudden restrictions on link sharing seem to have thwarted some attempts to refer users to the alternative platform.
“Twitter is now trying to block its users from going to official social media accounts of elected officials on other platforms,” said Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer, who shared a screenshot of a message on the Twitter system warning that Beyer’s link to his Mastodon profile was “possibly to be undesirable or unsafe.”
Other users, such as New York Times editor Patrick LaForge, noted that attempts to add Mastodon links to Twitter profiles were producing Twitter error messages warning that the links were “considered malware”.
CNN confirmed some of the reports with its own testing, and found that Twitter blocked attempts to tweet links that redirected users to a Mastodon profile. Sharing Mastodon’s user processing as plain text, and using link shortening services that obscured the destination URL, allowed users to work around the limitations. But the blocking continued into Friday afternoon.
Musk falsely claimed that the arrested journalists shared real-time information on his physical location, violating Twitter’s policies. After an arrested reporter challenged Musk’s claim at a Twitter Spaces event that Musk automatically dropped him Thursday night, Twitter’s new owner abruptly left the conversation.
Mastodon founder and CEO Eugene Roshko has not publicly addressed the Twitter link ban, but has amplified a public report about it. CNN has reached out to Roshko for comment.
While there are some differences in how the two platforms work, Mastodon’s user experience replicates much of Twitter’s core functionality. Twitter is much larger, with about 238 million users versus 1 million mastodons, but the latter has grown rapidly since Musk acquired Twitter. In the first week and a half after Musk closed his Twitter deal, Mastodon gained hundreds of thousands of users, and the migration has only continued since then.
Twitter’s move to block links to an emerging competitor could be the kind of activity to pique the interest of the Federal Trade Commission, whose chair, Lena Khan, has vowed to crack down on new ways tech platforms might try to harm competition.
If regulators prove that Twitter knowingly used the link ban to maintain a form of market dominance and to keep a potential competitor at bay, they may have a case, legal experts say.
In general, companies are not bound to do business with each other and can choose their business partners freely. But a dominant company that is said to have “market power” could violate antitrust law if it refuses to do business with third parties.
The concept of a “duty to deal” is probably most relevant to this situation, according to Charlotte Solomon, director of competition policy at consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge and a former antitrust official with the Federal Trade Commission.
“If Twitter has market power, it may have some duties to deal with competitors,” Solomon said. “Dealing duties is one area of antitrust law that I think is really important in the technology sector, but has been severely curtailed” in recent decades.
Solomon added that under Khan, a skeptic of audio technology, the FTC has shown expanded interest in issues related to duty-to-handle through recent policy statements. And during the Trump administration, the FTC alleged that Facebook acted anti-competitively by blocking access to Vine, a video platform owned by Twitter, as part of a broader lawsuit aimed at breaking up the social media giant. (The FTC’s complaint was later dismissed by a federal judge, but reintroduced with slightly different arguments on Khan’s watch.)
The issue around duty to deal would probably need to be argued that Twitter has somehow harmed itself by restricting Mastodon link sharing – perhaps by making itself less likely to receive inbound traffic from Mastodon, or by making itself less attractive to advertisers as an open platform. At the same time, it’s also likely to show that Twitter’s actions hurt Mastodon worse, by taking something critical away from it (in this case, likely, an influx of new users).
Before that, however, a judge must first agree that Twitter has “market power,” or dominance in a particular market that regulators are expected to describe and account for in any lawsuit. This identification could take a variety of forms, but it would need to rally a judge before prosecutors could argue that Twitter’s behavior was anti-competitive.
It may be a difficult case, Baer and Solomon said.
Baer added that banning the Twitter link doesn’t just raise potential competition concerns. It also raises questions about Twitter’s stated reasons for blocking links, and whether these public justifications are subject to scrutiny by consumer protection officials.
As Baer tweeted, the link he shared to his Mastodon profile was not malicious. Prior to Thursday, there appeared to be no grounds for Twitter to claim that Mastodon links were unsafe.
If Twitter misled the public with its statements about Mastodon links, saying they were spam or harmful when the company knew they were harmless, for example, the FTC could potentially try to argue that Twitter acted unfairly or deceptively, according to Baer.
The FTC has historically enjoyed wide latitude to prosecute alleged unfair and deceptive business practices. More importantly, these cases do not require a demonstration of market power.
With the FTC already closely monitoring Twitter’s behavior under Musk, the Mastodon issue could lead to more scrutiny that the company can’t afford.
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