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February 6, 2023

Twitter API charges could put it at risk of EU fines

Elon Musk has since said he will consider offering free write-only access for certain developers making bots with 'good content'.

By Ryan Morrison

Twitter’s plan to end free access to its hugely popular API and restrict access to data generated trhe by users of the social media platform to those willing to pay could put it at odds with the European Commission and harm research and small developers, experts warn.

Twitter will revoke free access to its API from 9 February in an attempt to block harmful bots (Photo: Sattalat Phukkum/Shutterstock)
Twitter will revoke free access to its API from 9 February in an attempt to block harmful bots (Photo by Sattalat Phukkum/Shutterstock)

Twitter confirmed last week that it would be ending free access to its API with owner Elon Musk suggesting it could charge anyone wanting access a $100 per month subscription. He later confirmed they would consider free access applications from developers making bots with “good” content.

Companies currently make liberal use of the Twitter API, including monitoring user sentiment about their brand, automating responses to customer inquiries or complaints and carrying out trend analysis activities to spot behaviour changes before they have an impact on business or sales.

It has also proved an important tool in academia, where researchers use it to do sentiment analysis, look for regional trends, monitor types of conversations and predict impact of ideas. On top of those use cases, security researchers also use it to monitor for nefarious activity and cybercrime trends.

While a corporate user might be able to justify the $100 a month proposed charge, that is likely outside the reach of a hobbyist, researcher and many cybersecurity analysts. It will also lead to a number of popular bots that provide auto responses and tools such as unwinding a long thread into a single webpage outside the realms of viability.

Free access will be cut off from 9 February, the Twitter Developer account revealed, writing “we will no longer support free access to the Twitter API, both v2 and v1.1”, explaining that “a paid basic tier will be available instead”.

“Twitter data are among the world’s most powerful data sets,” the Twitter Developer account wrote on announcing the new paid plans. “We’re committed to enabling fast & comprehensive access so you can continue to build with us.”

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Will Twitter API change reduce fake and bot accounts?

Musk says his aim in charging for API access is to reduce the number of fake and bot accounts. He wrote: “Free API is being abused badly right now by bot scammers and opinion manipulators. There’s no verification process or cost, so easy to spin up 100k bots to do bad things. Just ~$100/month for API access with ID verification will clean things up greatly.”

But the change could also hamper emergency response efforts. A group of developers have been using the Twitter API to map earthquake rescue calls posted to the platform and place them on a geographical map to better understand the damage in the country.

This followed the massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck near Gaziantep in the early hours of Monday. A second 7.5 magnitude tremor hit around midday. So far 2,3000 people have been killed and thousands more injured. Many are trapped under rubble or stranded away from emergency support. Twitter has provided a mechanism to communicate location and allow engineers and officials to collaborate, with the API helping to automate the process.

Twitter has already revoked access to the API for third-party apps, citing “long-standing rules” and updated developer terms to ban the use of third-party clients. This killed off apps like Twitterific and Tweetbot. Developers and researchers responded with an outcry, claiming it would kill off a number of fun and useful bots that do everything from tweet the weather to sharing alerts for stock prices.

Twitter could risk EU fines

Musk doesn’t plan to back down but he has since said he’d consider enabling a write-only API for developers of bots that provide “good content that is free” as well as offering verified users access to the API if their identity is confirmed and they subscribe to Twitter Blue.

If that doesn’t include an academic licence then Musk could still find himself in deep water with the European Commission, according to Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University. “Despite outreach from policymakers, Twitter hasn’t clarified whether this applies to its academic researcher access program,” she wrote.

If the academic program is swept up in the API access ban then it will have “significant implications for Twitter’s compliance with European law” as free access for researchers is part of its commitment to the European Commission. Revoking this access could lead to significant fines under the Digital Services Act, triggered by its failures under the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, a voluntary scheme that Twitter itself helped design.

“But this gets even more problematic for Twitter,” Tromble explained. “Because compliance with the Code of Practice is also relevant for compliance with the EU’s new Digital Services Act (DSA). In short, when evaluating whether Twitter is complying with the DSA, the Commission can take their adherence to the Code of Practice into account.”

One of the best ways to understand the potential risks from disinformation under the code of practice and the DSA is to permit independent researchers to analyse platform data and assess what those risks are, she explained. That comes through the API and Tromble added that “making it harder for independent researchers to conduct this vital public interest work will definitely be viewed unkindly by European regulators and puts Twitter at risk for significant fines under the DSA.”

Read more: Twitter data breach: 5.4m user leak could be tip of the iceberg

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