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Elon’s Cool New Plan for Your Data Is Probably Illegal

Twitter may force you to hand over location data and give consent for targeted ads if you want to keep using it.

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Elon Musk
Photo: Miguel Roberts (AP)

There’s no getting around it. Elon Musk is a business genius. Show the man a box, and he’ll think outside of it. The CEO scared away all of Twitter’s advertisers, so lately, he’s been trying to come up with a way for his company to make money.

Twitter is working on a plan that would force users to opt in to targeted ads, removing a years-old privacy setting that gives users more control over their data, according to a report in the Platformer newsletter. But that’s not all! The new strategy may mandate that you share your location information and let Twitter sell your data to third-parties. What’s more, the company may compel your consent for targeted advertising using your contacts and the phone number you provided for two-factor authentication. These aren’t just brilliant ideas; they are also almost certainly illegal.

According to sources who spoke to Platformer, Twitter’s new innovation would show users a full screen pop-up asking for consent for personalized advertising and location data collection. The only way to get rid of the pop-up would be to say yes, so it would be impossible to use Twitter without agreeing to the new data regime.

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Several laws stand in the way of what Elon may be preparing for. In Europe, there’s the GDPR. Just last week, the EU announced a ruling against Meta barring this kind of mandatory consent. California’s also got the CCPA and its younger brother the CPRA, which goes into effect on January 1. Both essentially say you can’t force people to consent to data sharing and targeted ads.

Also, the plan might run afoul of consumer electronics manufacturer Apple, Inc., which kind of makes a big deal about privacy. Twitter’s plan would reportedly let you avoid targeted advertising if you sign up for the $8 a month Twitter Blue service. Apple says you’ll get kicked out of the App Store if you force users to choose between ad tracking and a paid service.

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Then there’s the FTC. The reported plan could trigger enforcement action, if for no other reason than Twitter just paid the FTC a $150 million fine for targeting ads using two-factor authentication phone numbers without permission. The company has been under an FTC consent decree since 2011. Fortunately for Elon, resignations, firings, and other personnel changes to Twitter’s legal department mean he probably has not heard about all that garbage.

Twitter does not have a communications department at present after Musk laid off half the organization. As such, the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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A quick peek into Twitter shows that hundreds, if not thousands, of users have tweeted that they’re unhappy with the whole forced consent idea, and a lot of them threatened to quit the site if it goes through.

If it wasn’t for the CCPA, the FTC, the GDPR, Apple, and Twitter’s own users, selling your data and showing you more targeted ads would solve a lot of Twitter’s problems. Ads account for 90% of Twitter’s revenue, and the company’s relationship with advertisers is in a death spiral. Elon tweeted over the weekend thanking advertisers for coming back, which, uh, really doesn’t seem like a thing that happened in the universe the rest of us are living in. One former executive described the advertiser situation at Twitter as “catastrophic” in late November.

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Traffic to Twitter’s ad management tool was down 75% in October and then 85% in November, compared to the same time last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, Twitter helped quell advertisers’ fears about skyrocketing hate speech by running ads for major corporations on the profiles of white nationalists.

Twitter’s ad business was already in jeopardy before Musk sent most of his company’s biggest advertising spenders overboard. Apple’s earth-shaking App Tracking Transparency setting, the one that asks if you want to let apps track you, dealt a serious blow to the bird app. Platformer reported less than 35% of users opted into Twitter tracking, and around 23% of users took the extra step to out-out of sharing location data.

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If I was running the show, these problems would keep me up at night, but that’s why Elon paid $44 billion for Twitter and I didn’t. Who needs advertisers when you’ve got Twitter Blue, which, so far, seems like the Tesla CEO’s only plan to turn things around. On Monday, the service went back online after a disastrous initial rollout that saw trolls using verified accounts to impersonate major brands. If a blue check mark available to anyone with $8 doesn’t entice you, Musk has sweetened the pot by promising Twitter Blue subscribers will see half the ads, someday.

In totally unrelated news, Twitter is selling its used office supplies now to make a couple of extra bucks. See? Like I said, business genius.