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‘Faster action’ needed on making social media platform data APIs available

Though access is being mandated in the Online Safety Bill, it could be delayed for years. Researchers want that to change.

By Ryan Morrison

A group of leading researchers have written to the government urging “faster action” on opening up access to social media platform data. The provision is included in the Online Safety Bill but the group say current plans wouldn’t see APIs of platforms like Twitter and Facebook opened up for at least two years.

Social media companies are increasingly locking down API access as a result of scraping for generative AI (Photo: Tada Images / Shutterstock)
Social media companies are increasingly locking down API access as a result of scraping for generative AI. (Photo by Tada Images/Shutterstock)

In an open letter to the secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, Chloe Smith, the group urged action to ensure researchers, policymakers and civil society “can effectively understand some of the most pressing issues facing our society today”.

Companies like Twitter and Reddit are significantly increasing the cost of API access and restricting access.

Open API access ‘vital’ for research

Professor Gina Neff, director of the University of Cambridge Minderoo Centre, which co-ordinated the letter, told Tech Monitor the information was “vital for regulating the platforms and tracking misinformation. This reduces regulators’ ability to provide democratic oversight and accountability,” as well as making it harder for researchers to investigate societal trends, she says. “It isn’t about the money, it’s about getting fair access,” Neff says.

There is a provision within the Online Safety Bill to provide researchers and regulators with fair access to trend data generated by social media platforms. This issue, according to the letter, is the delay.

Currently, Ofcom has to produce a report within two years into how much and what access researchers should have to social networking data. The letter states: “We believe these requirements can be strengthened now instead of waiting for a subsequent report. This would potentially bring forward the timeline for researcher access to data in line with the developments that have occurred with the EU’s Digital Services Act.”

Lord Bethell, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Knight of Weymouth have proposed an amendment to the Online Safety Bill that, if adopted by the government, would do exactly what the group asked – to create a “code of practice on access to data by researchers”. It would accelerate and increase the data access rights granted in the bill with the authors of the letter describing it as necessary for “independent research, democratic oversight and accountability”.

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Regulation and monitoring of social requires API access

Governments are tackling the best way to regulate social networks and artificial intelligence models, many of which are trained on data gathered through these social networking APIs. Companies are closing off access to better commercialise their data, but Neff told Tech Monitor this leaves a void in monitoring and makes tools to spot misinformation, AI-generated content and toxic behaviour impossible to build.

“One thing we need to do is understand what is happening on those platforms,” she says, adding there is a need to train capacity in regulators and researchers, as well as use data people publicly post on social platforms as a way to understand our digital society.

Neff and her team are in the midst of a large project to build a tool that can provide real-time identification of fake content, misinformation and disinformation online. It works across multiple languages, multiple media formats and any platform. “It will let us spot disinformation themes and use fact-checkers to get on the front foot to counter those narratives,” she says. But they can’t get the training data they need from the networks to build the models.

It goes beyond tracking fake content. A number of societal researchers rely on trends in data shared to social media for tracking movements of people, shopping trends, health events such as a pandemic and even linking movement of people with air quality changes. 

“Getting the data into people’s hands is important,” said Neff. “A lot of research tools are using what is happening in our behaviour online to understand how friendship works, understand things at scale, which in term helps companies provide better services or government services.”

In the open letter the group also warned that if the UK government is serious about making the UK one of the most innovative places in the world, then access to data is essential. Explaining that: “The proposed data access provisions help to ensure that computational social science researchers stay in the UK, rather than leave for projects in the EU which already has these data access provisions in place.”

Read more: London Tech Week: Sunak touts UK AI safety research

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