That’s where the explosive, 84-page complaint obtained by The Washington Post came into the arguments Wednesday. Former Twitter head of security Peiter Zatko alleges Twitter was lying to Musk about bots and spammy accounts, and that the site had egregious security deficiencies that cast doubt on the validity of its statements to federal regulators — and possibly also to Musk. Still, there was little hard documentation to back up his claims on spam and bots, and he exited the company months before Musk decided to acquire the company.
Musk’s attorney Alex Spiro said in the hearing that Zatko was the head of security and oversaw bots as part of that role.
“Mr. Zatko, who was responsible for much of this — including processing and removing various spam bots — he was not some low level employee,” Spiro said. “He was one of the top handful of officers in the company.”
“The way Mr. Zatko put it, management had no appetite to properly measure bot accounts,” he added.
Musk’s and Twitter’s attorneys were appearing in Delaware Chancery Court for a discovery hearing in their ongoing dispute. Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, announced he was terminating the agreement to buy Twitter in July over concerns relating to Twitter’s tallying of bot and spam profiles, which Musk alleges vastly underestimates the true number of inauthentic accounts. Twitter sued Musk alleging breach of contract days later. Musk filed a countersuit in late July.
Musk had become increasingly vocal about his concerns with spam and bots amid a downturn in tech stocks and pressure on Tesla started to cut into his net worth. That had led to questions about Musk’s ability to finance the deal.
The hearing Wednesday concerned the ability of Musk’s team to demand information about Twitter’s internal practices and data. The judge previously ruled against Musk’s team when it sought to collect information from more than 20 company leaders. One of those leaders that Musk’s team had requested information from was Zatko. But the judge turned the request down, raising the possibility that Musk’s side will use the new revelations to revisit the request.
Twitter has previously disputed the characterizations made by the whistleblower and by Musk regarding spam and bots. Several leading artificial intelligence experts have publicly supported Twitter’s methodology for its spam and bot calculations.
Twitter attorney Bradley Wilson argued in court Wednesday that spam counts were merely an estimate, supported by regulatory disclosures that emphasized the inaccurate nature of the count.
“We have an inherently subjective assessment,” Wilson said. “Twitter was making an estimate and it was very candid that that’s what it was doing.”
He also noted that some of Musk’s teams requests “explicitly seek private data,” that the company was not willing to give away, including user IP addresses, phone numbers, and information about users’ locations.
The hearing opened on Wednesday with Spiro arguing that the Twitter was flip flopping on its reasoning for not offering data to Musk’s team, data he says is important to figuring out what’s actually going on at the social media company.
“There’s this back and forth, and every single time, the goal posts seem to move,” Spiro alleged, referring to requests for more data related to spam and bots.
“We are the would-be buyer here and we don’t even know what exists,” Spiro alleged of the data he alleged Twitter is stonewalling. “It puts us at a huge disadvantage.”
He also alleged that he has been engaging in deception around his user numbers for a long time. He argued that Twitter’s growth was flattening for years, and that the company changed how it calculated its user numbers in 2019 to appear that there was more growth. Spiro said this underlying deception is one reason the judge should grant their claims for more data.
Twitter has said it invented the new way to calculate growth, in 2019, to give a clearer picture of the company’s status to investors.