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Twitter sues Texas attorney general to stop content moderation probe

‘This retaliatory conduct violates the Constitution.’

The Twitter bird logo in white against a dark background with outlined logos around it and red circles rippling out from it. Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Twitter has sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for opening an investigation into its moderation practices, arguing that the probe attempts to “intimidate, harass, and target Twitter” in retaliation for banning former President Donald Trump.

Twitter filed the suit yesterday in California federal court. It’s asking the court to stop Paxton from demanding “volumes of highly confidential documents” on Twitter’s content moderation system. “Twitter sought for weeks to reach an agreement with AG Paxton that would put reasonable limits on the scope of this demand, but to no avail,” its complaint reads. “This retaliatory conduct violates the Constitution.”

Paxton opened an investigation into Twitter — along with Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon — in January. In his announcement, he cited Trump’s ban from Facebook and Twitter as a “discriminatory” and “unprecedented” action. His office requested all files, including emails and other communication, related to content moderation on Twitter. (It also asked for communications related to the smaller social media platform Parler, despite the fact that Twitter hasn’t taken action against Parler’s account.)

Twitter says it was exercising its First Amendment rights by refusing to publish Trump’s speech on the platform. And it says releasing internal moderation data would let bad-faith actors “carefully design their content to evade Twitter’s scrutiny,” drawing on confidential information. “While Twitter strives for as much transparency as possible, it cannot practically make every aspect of its content moderation practices public.”

Citing Paxton’s public statements excoriating social networks for banning Trump, Twitter calls the investigation a ploy to pressure private companies into allowing content that breaks their rules, something the First Amendment may prevent government officials from doing.

In addition to Texas’ investigation of tech companies, Governor Greg Abbott recently backed a bill that would broadly ban large apps and websites from suspending users or removing content — a move that would also raise significant constitutional questions.