Twitter’s plan to charge researchers for data access puts it in EU crosshairs

Twitter’s plan to charge researchers for data access puts it in EU crosshairs
Опубликовано: Monday, 27 March 2023 07:07

Elon Musk’s social media giant plans to charge academics to access its data — in potential violation of Europe’s content rules

Elon Musk pledged Twitter would abide by Europe’s new content rules — but Yevgeniy Golovchenko is not so convinced.

The Ukrainian academic, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, relies on the social network’s data to track Russian disinformation, including propaganda linked to the ongoing war in Ukraine. But that access, including to reams of tweets analyzing pro-Kremlin messaging, may soon be cut off. Or, even worse for Golovchenko, cost him potentially millions of euros a year.

Under Musk’s leadership, Twitter is shutting down researchers’ free access to its data, though the final decision on when that will happen has yet to be made. Company officials are also offering new pay-to-play access to researchers via deals that start at $42,000 per month and can rocket up to $210,000 per month for the largest amount of data, according to Twitter’s internal presentation to academics that was shared with POLITICO.

Yet this switch — from almost unlimited, free data access to costly monthly subscription fees — falls afoul of the European Union’s new online content rules, the Digital Services Act. Those standards, which kick in over the coming months, require the largest social networking platforms, including Twitter, to provide so-called vetted researchers free access to their data.

It remains unclear how Twitter will meet its obligations under the 27-country bloc’s rules, which impose fines of up to 6 percent of its yearly revenue for infractions.

"If Twitter makes access less accessible to researchers, this will hurt research on things like disinformation and misinformation," said Golovchenko who — like many academics who spoke with POLITICO — are now in limbo until Twitter publicly decides when, or whether, it will shut down its current free data-access regime.

It also means that "we will have fewer choices," added the Ukrainian, acknowledging that, until now, Twitter had been more open for outsiders to poke around its data compared with the likes of Facebook or YouTube. "This means will be even more dependent on the goodwill of social media platforms."

Meeting EU commitments

When POLITICO contacted Twitter for comment, the press email address sent back a poop emoji in response. A company representative did not respond to POLITICO’s questions, though executives met with EU officials and civil society groups Wednesday to discuss how Twitter would comply with Europe’s data-access obligations, according to three people with knowledge of those discussions, who were granted anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.

Twitter was expected to announce details of its new paid-for data access regime last week, according to the same individuals briefed on those discussions, though no specifics about the plans were yet known. As of Friday night, no details had yet been published.

Still, the ongoing uncertainty comes as EU regulators and policymakers have Musk in their crosshairs as the onetime world’s richest man reshapes Twitter into a free speech-focused social network. The Tesla chief executive has fired almost all of the trust, safety and policy teams in a company-wide cull of employees and has already failed to comply with some of the bloc’s new content rules that require Twitter to detail how it is tackling falsehoods and foreign interference.

Musk has publicly stated the company will comply with the bloc’s content rules.

"Access to platforms’ data is one of the key elements of democratic oversight of the players that control increasingly bigger part of Europe’s information space," Věra Jourová, the European Commission vice president for values and transparency, told POLITICO in an emailed statement in reference to the EU’s code of practice on disinformation, a voluntary agreement that Twitter signed up to last year. A Commission spokesperson said such access would have to be free to approved researchers.

European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová said "Access to platforms’ data is one of the key elements of democratic oversight" | Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE

"If the access to researchers is getting worse, most likely that would go against the spirit of that commitment (under Europe’s new content rules)," Jourová added. "I appeal to Twitter to find the solution and respect its commitments under the code."

Show me the data access

For researchers based in the United States — who don’t fall under the EU’s new content regime — the future is even bleaker.

Megan Brown, a senior research engineer at New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics, which relies heavily on Twitter’s existing access, said half of her team’s 40 projects currently use the company’s data. Under Twitter’s proposed price hikes, the researchers would have to scrap their reliance on the social network via existing paid-for access through the company’s so-called Decahose API for large-scale data access, which is expected to be shut off by the end of May.

NYU’s work via Twitter data has looked at everything from how automated bots skew conversations on social media to potential foreign interference via social media during elections. Such projects, Brown added, will not be possible when Twitter shuts down academic access to those unwilling to pay the new prices.

"We cannot pay that amount of money," said Brown. "I don’t know of a research center or university that can or would pay that amount of money."

For Rebekah Tromble, chairperson of the working group on platform-to-researcher data access at the European Digital Media Observatory, a Commission-funded group overseeing which researchers can access social media companies’ data under the bloc’s new rules, any rollback of Twitter’s data-access allowances would be against their existing commitments to give researchers greater access to its treasure trove of data.

"If Twitter makes the choice to begin charging researchers for access, it will clearly be in violation of its commitments under the code of practice [on disinformation]," she said.

This article has been updated.

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