Professor Luciano Floridi
Former Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information
Luciano Floridi‘s research areas are the philosophy of Information, information and computer ethics, and the philosophy of technology.
After months of mixed-signals, delays, and a lack of information from Twitter, we were finally given the full details of Twitter’s new API access plans. Starting (supposedly) on April 29th, 2023, the new tiers of the Twitter API will be:
As we write this, the old Twitter API plans are still functioning, including the subject of this blog post, Twitter’s 2.0 for Academics, which offered, amongst other things, read access to 10,000,000 tweets per month, for free. It was well regarded as the most open dataset of any major social media platform and has been used as the main data-source for countless research projects. For example, in the case of the OII, Twitter data have been used to help us understand global connectivity, hate speech, political campaigning, and in our own work, voter suppression.
On April 29th, the API access that made such studies possible will go away. For now, all we have is this tweet from Twitter’s developer account:
“For Academia, we are looking at new ways to continue serving this community. Stay tuned to @TwitterDev to learn more. In the meantime, Free, Basic and Enterprise are available for academics.”
This is disappointing. The Academic API gave us access to real-time tweets from around the world, alongside information about user connections, topic areas, and in some cases, location data. It allowed researchers to examine the spread of information, detect disasters, understand political environments, and even monitor public health. Researchers would point to that API as a great example of good academic access to social media data, and many of us hoped it would push other platforms, like Facebook, to improve researcher access to data.
But there is also the broader point. If Twitter is supposedly a ‘public square’ where ‘a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner’, the public or at least researchers serving the public should have a reasonable and effective access to its data. This is an issue that is emblematic of a more than decade-long debate about the importance of internet freedom and the protection of core values like creativity, access to knowledge, and privacy that activists like Aaron Schwartz and organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have fought hard to defend.
This most recent move against the openness of the Internet does not come as a surprise. The same activists named above who were instrumental in preventing the introduction of ‘censorious’ legislation (SOPA and PIPA) in 2012 have been ‘predicting’ a growing attack on digital rights since at least 2017. Twitter itself originally announced changes to the API in early February, and researchers have been preparing for the worst, downloading tweets they might need for future research projects as early as possible. This is not the death-knell for research on Twitter; prior to the Academic API, researchers used a variety of scraping services, and other social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok give researchers very limited access to their data. But this is one more regressive step in the broader trend of the consolidation of information by a select few companies.
If Twitter really means to implement “new ways to continue serving this [Academic] community”, then this community needs access to Twitter data. As Corynne McSherry – the Legal Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation – stated [when it comes to any attacks on net neutrality] “we must all work together to hold both Governments and Private companies accountable.” So, we ask Twitter to reinstall the old API and to facilitate and expand, not restrict or limit, the quantity of data accessible through it. Closed, proprietary, inaccessible, opaque data are not what we expect in a liberal, open, and accountable society that support free speech and freedom of information.
If you agree, please sign the appeal by clicking this link – the form requires email addresses (not collected by us) to prevent spam, but only your name will be viewable. Many thanks for your support from OII researchers Prathm Juneja, Jess Morley, and Professor Luciano Floridi.