Exodus continues at Twitter as Elon Musk hints at possible bankruptcy

Departures of top figures handling safety, security, privacy and compliance come amid warnings from Federal Trade Commission

As Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter entered its third week, and following mass layoffs, the billionaire laid bare a delicate financial future for the social media platform, amid an exodus of top privacy and security executives.

Yoel Roth, the head of safety and integrity who had been deputized to publicly address concerns advertisers and users had about the platform, is reportedly the latest to leave the company.

The departures began on the same day Elon Musk addressed employees for the first time, saying that “bankruptcy isn’t out of the question”, according to multiple reports.

The day began with the resignation of three top security officials – chief information security officer Lea Kissner, chief privacy officer Damien Kieran and chief compliance officer Marianne Fogarty – prompting warnings from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). (Twitter reached a settlement over privacy issues with the FTC in May.) Following those departures, Roth and Twitter’s head of client solutions, Robin Wheeler, also left the company.

I've made the hard decision to leave Twitter. I've had the opportunity to work with amazing people and I'm so proud of the privacy, security, and IT teams and the work we've done.

I'm looking forward to figuring out what's next, starting with my reviews for @USENIXSecurity 😁

— Lea Kissner (@LeaKissner) November 10, 2022

Time honored tradition. ✌️#oneteam pic.twitter.com/ZS1FtMFivK

— Damien (@Damokieran) November 10, 2022

In an email to employees and a subsequent staff meeting, Musk did little to inspire confidence in the company’s future. In one email, Musk described the dire economic circumstances the company was in and how important he believed its subscription service, Twitter Blue, was to its future.

“Without significant subscription revenue, there is a good chance Twitter will not survive the upcoming economic downturn,” Musk said in the email. “We need roughly half of our revenue to be subscription.”

One employee also said at the staff meeting that Musk appeared to downplay employee concerns about how a pared-back Twitter workforce was handling its obligations to maintain privacy and data security standards.

Musk’s memo and staff meeting echoed a livestreamed conversation on Wednesday in which he tried to assuage the concerns of major advertisers and made his most expansive public comments about Twitter’s direction since he closed the $44bn deal to buy the platform late last month and dismissed its top executives.

The departures compound the issues plaguing the social media platform since Musk bought it. Musk’s takeover and the resultant confusing back-and-forth on product launches and content moderation policies have led many brands including General Mills to pause ad buys on Twitter – a development the billionaire attempted to rectify in the live stream for advertisers. The duo leading the live stream, Roth and Wheeler, have now both left the company.

“So the two people Elon brought forward to talk with advertisers in an attempt to convince them to keep partnering with the company just quit,” tweeted Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change. “Companies that stay with Twitter at this point will be tied to these dangerous and unhinged policy changes.”

The company’s subscription product Twitter Blue, which launched on Wednesday and allows users to buy a verified blue checkmark for $8, has already resulted in various accounts being verified despite impersonating brands or notable figures. Some civil rights groups worry that a lack of clarity on content moderation policies and the unrestrained ability to buy a blue checkmark could lead – if they haven’t already – to a scourge of hate speech and spread of misinformation. They have called on more brands to pause their advertisements on the platform.

“I have never seen a billionaire begging for your $8 this much,” said Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP. “Clearly, our efforts – calling on companies to pause all advertising on Twitter – are working. Corporations need to be held accountable, and Twitter is no exception. Hate speech and disinformation have no place anywhere.”

Under the company’s settlement with the FTC, Twitter is required to perform privacy reviews before it makes any changes to its products. But in a letter posted to Slack by an attorney on the company’s privacy team and reported by the Verge, the author says that they heard the company’s head of legal, Alex Spiro, “say that Elon is willing to take on a huge amount of risk in relation to this company and its users, because ‘Elon puts rockets into space, he’s not afraid of the FTC.’” The company’s legal team is now asking engineers to “self-certify” that their features comply with FTC rules and privacy standards, according to the Verge.

In the letter, the lawyer said people should make use of the available whistleblower protections “if you feel uncomfortable about anything you’re being asked to do”.

Messages seeking comment were left with Twitter, but it is unlikely someone will respond as the communications department has been laid off.

The Associated Press contributed to this report


Johana Bhuiyan and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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