TechScape: Why Twitter ending free access to its APIs should be a ‘wake-up call’

In this week’s newsletter: The social media network is putting its APIs – the under-praised tool that keeps the internet as we know it going – behind a paywall. And the ramifications are huge

APIs may not seem like the sexiest thing to write about in a tech newsletter, but bear with me. Because APIs – or application programming interfaces – are important. They’re the synapses of our digital world: without them, our current ways of living wouldn’t work.

For example, when you visit a website that requires you to log in, and you choose to connect with a Google or Facebook account, you’re utilising an API. That click of a button that links your existing account on one platform with a new account on another is enabled by an API. They spring into action whenever one type of work interacts with another, working to bridge that gap. APIs are the overlooked and under-praised army that keeps the internet as we know it going.

From Thursday, many of those features will disappear from Twitter as its API goes behind a paywall. The company announced last week that it was removing free access to its API.

“The latest set of changes to Twitter will likely spell the end of some of your favourite accounts, tools and features, as the platform’s owner, Elon Musk, continues to look for ways to increase revenue,” the Guardian reported. Those tools include services like Thread Reader, which unrolls Twitter threads into easily digestible formats, and @EarthquakeBot, which tracks weather events and natural disasters like earthquakes, as well as tools that big brands use for their customer services.

The importance of APIs

“APIs are an area fraught with competing tensions,” says Alan Woodward, a cybersecurity expert and professor at the University of Surrey. “Probably the most sensational failure was when Facebook allowed the survey ultimately used by Cambridge Analytica to harvest sensitive data about users and their friends.” On Twitter, API access was more “benign”, Woodward says – limited mainly to posting via third-party apps that allow an element of automation.

Perhaps more concerning is that the change in API access spells the end of academic research using Twitter. For instance, one recent academic paper that looks at all the activity on a single day on Twitter would not be possible now without paying out for access. It’s also a wake-up call, says researcher Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, for the public to show that their data can be monetised in ways they have no control over. “The research community in my field has always been dependent on access to the data of the very platforms they aim to study, which is an intolerable situation for independent research and now it is even more pronounced,” he says.

Woodward puts it this way: “APIs are quite important to those doing research on Twitter … if he cuts this access off then some of the transparency provided by third-party researchers is likely to disappear.”

The move will also affect the apps and services that use Twitter. “People find useful tools or services that are built on top of it, academics use it for data, companies that use it to connect with customers,” says Kate Bevan, a long-tenured tech writer who believes Musk’s API change is significant – and bad – news. Bevan is also the human behind @DaphneFlap, a Twitter bot that relies on API access for its existence, posting a photograph of the cat flap through which a cat named Daphne leaps every time a movement is sensed. “We take APIs for granted.”

A screenshot from @DaphneFlap, one account that relies on an API.
A screenshot from @DaphneFlap, one Twitter account that relies on an API. Photograph: Daphne’s Catflap

Musk’s prevarications

The API shift has been almost universally panned – which may explain why Elon Musk has decided to backtrack, sort of. On 5 February, he tweeted that “Twitter will enable a light, write-only API for bots providing good content that is free.”

What exactly constitutes “good content” isn’t known. Presumably, it doesn’t include @ElonJet, an account that used automated API interactions between publicly available flight-tracking data and Twitter to post the flight times and locations of Musk’s private jet – an action that the entrepreneur called “real-time assassination co-ordinates”. (@ElonJet was banned in December 2022.) “I can’t help but conclude that this move has been brought about because some of the fun bots have irritated people in high places,” says Woodward.

“Good content” as per Musk might be more like @PepitoTheCat, a Twitter account that also takes a photograph every time a cat named Pépito goes through its owners’ cat flap: after all, Musk’s volte face happened in response to pleas from that account’s owner that Musk’s policy change would “kill” his profile.

But the change, apart from being alarming, also highlights a contradiction in Musk’s goals for Twitter. He has heavily touted the Twitter Files during his time in charge of the company – a cache of internal documents, selectively given to journalists with whom he has existing relationships, which contain information he alleges proves that the platform prior to his ownership engaged in opaque decision-making around key policies. Yet by saying that he’ll exempt people creating “good content” from API limitations and charges, he’s perpetuating the same problem. It tackles one problem he says he sought to buy Twitter to solve – its plethora of bots, which he felt was diminishing the value of real, human interactions on the site. But it could exacerbate another problem which he said was significant enough for him to buy the platform for $44bn in the first place.

Musk is introducing a lack of transparency and editorialising about what had been a simple proposition: anyone who wanted access to Twitter’s API could get it free of charge. Now, it depends on whether they produce content that appeals to his whims.

It’s yet another example of the perils of semi-public platforms being controlled by individuals. And an example of the impact that removing or revoking access to a relatively unrecognised backbone of the internet can have on everyday users.

If you want to read the complete version of the newsletter, please subscribe to receive TechScape in your inbox every Tuesday.

Contributor

Chris Stokel-Walker

The GuardianTramp

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