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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Twitter curbs researcher access, sparking backlash in Washington

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Happy Friday! Thanks to all the eagle-eyed readers who caught that I botched the grammar on an idiom yesterday. I'll err on the side of not erring from now on.

A quick note: I’ll be speaking at a Silicon Flatirons conference in Colorado this weekend. Going too? Drop me a line:

Today’s top was reported with an assist from my colleague Cat Zakrzewski

Below: The FTC denies Meta’s disqualification play, and Harvard ends a top misinformation project. First:

Twitter curbs researcher access, sparking backlash in Washington

Twitter’s decision to restrict access to a key tool used to study the platform is sparking backlash from researchers and Democratic lawmakers, who say the move undercuts owner Elon Musk’s pledges to boost transparency at the social network. 

On Thursday, Twitter announced that it will shutter the ability to freely access its API, or application programming interface — software tools that allow outside researchers and developers to collect and analyze data from a site. Instead, Twitter’s development team tweeted, the company will begin charging for it, without specifying how much. 

The decision will likely price out academics and journalists looking into Twitter’s practices and the spread of harmful content on the platform, Democratic lawmakers said. 

“This move will make it more difficult for researchers to access the information necessary to understand harms on Twitter, including misinformation, foreign influence operations and more,” said Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), who led a letter last year calling on Musk to pledge to keep Twitter data open to researchers, as we reported.  

“We need more information, not less, about how social media companies like Twitter operate, and I’m concerned that this decision will cut down on important research in the public interest,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who has pushed for greater platform transparency.

Musk tweeted last month that “Transparency builds trust,” and he has repeatedly said he is making product changes to make the Twitter platform less opaque.

But many of his early moves have actually set back the company’s transparency work, according to a former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal company matters.

In addition to increasing prices for the API, Twitter has not yet released a transparency report under Musk’s leadership. Typically the reports are released twice a year and explain how Twitter is enforcing its rules and taking down content. The report should have been completed by the end of January, according to the person.

Broad company layoffs have affected employees in policy positions who previously worked to make the platform more transparent, and work has also stalled on Twitter’s Moderation Research Consortium, which sought to expand research into state-backed attacks on Twitter. Reuters first reported the pause on the consortium.

Under Musk, Twitter has also suspended over a half dozen journalists, including our colleague Drew Harwell, over allegations they were posting “basically assassination coordinates” for him and his family. The Post has seen no evidence that any of the reporters did so.

The suspensions, according to Trahan, came the same day that the company had assured her staff that it would not retaliate against researchers or journalists posting criticisms of the site. 

The API change is Musk’s latest effort to expand how much the platform is monetized. 

Sol Messing, a research associate professor at New York University who recently left Twitter’s data science team, said that it’s valid for the company to try to raise revenue and cut costs, but that far too often, “academic research gets caught up in the crossfire.”

“You can really easily become collateral damage when platforms make these changes that have just nothing to do with research,” he said in an interview. 

An email to Twitter’s communications team, which was gutted last year, was not returned. Musk did not return a request for comment.

The sudden price hike could be especially restrictive for students and researchers unaffiliated with well-funded universities or think tanks, particularly outside the United States, he said.

“Where you might need misinformation research the most, it could impact those areas disproportionately,” Messing said. 

It could limit visibility into how Musk’s decision to lay off scores of content moderators in developing countries has impacted hate speech and harassment on the site, which has spiked in large foreign markets since the mogul’s takeover, as my colleagues reported

Twitter’s shift is already hastening calls for action on Capitol Hill.

“This is a really good demonstration for exactly why we need regulatory action on researcher access to data,” Messing said.

Coons, who is leading bipartisan legislation to require tech companies to turn over more data to researchers, said that “we won’t be able to fully grasp the platform’s impact on society if Twitter restricts the data we need to understand it.”

The moves could also put Twitter in the crosshairs of European regulators, who last year passed sweeping new content regulations that include heightened transparency requirements.

Our top tabs

As legislative prospects dim, House antitrust advocates launch new caucus

A pair of prominent antitrust advocates in the House on Thursday launched a new caucus aimed at keeping up momentum for legislation to rein in Silicon Valley giants, Bloomberg News’s Emily Birnbaum reports

“Though the caucus does not have the same power as formal congressional committees, the lawmakers said they will hold hearings, support legislation and educate fellow lawmakers about their views on anti-monopoly policy,” Birnbaum reports.

The move comes days after Republican leadership opted against naming Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) chair of the House antitrust panel, despite him serving as the highest ranking Republican last Congress. The snub reflects the shifting policy dynamics in the House, where top Republicans have criticized antitrust efforts led by Buck and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who is co-leading the new caucus.

FTC rejects Meta bid to disqualify Khan in VR review

The Federal Trade Commission rejected a complaint by Facebook parent company Meta seeking to disqualify Chair Lina Khan from an internal agency review of the company’s deal to buy virtual reality company Within Unlimited, the Wall Street Journal’s Dave Michaels reports.

“The FTC voted 2-1, along partisan lines, to allow Lina Khan to participate in the legal case against the Meta-Within deal, according to an order made public Thursday,” the Journal reports. “The agency’s Democratic commissioners said federal ethics rules don’t require Ms. Khan’s disqualification, even if her prior work and statements were critical of Meta, the Facebook owner that rebranded itself as a company focused on developing immersive virtual worlds, or metaverses.”

Harvard shutting down prominent misinformation research project

“Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government said Thursday that next year it will shut down a prominent research center that studied online misinformation, marking the latest turning point for the study of social media’s impact on American society and politics,” my colleagues Drew Harwell and Joseph Menn report.

The Technology and Social Change Project, which has dug deep into the spread of coronavirus hoaxes and online incitement leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, “will be wound down due to a school policy that requires a faculty member lead such an undertaking,” according to the report.

Joan Donovan, a prominent misinformation scholar who led the project, is not a faculty member and therefore could not continue to lead the project, a school official said in an internal email. Kennedy School officials declined to comment on personnel matters. Donovan declined to comment.

Agency scanner

Google tees up venue clash over U.S. advertising antitrust lawsuit (Reuters)

Inside the industry

Lackluster earnings reports show Big Tech’s golden age is fading (Gerrit De Vynck, Rachel Lerman and Julian Mark)

Google CEO Says Its ChatGPT Rival Coming Soon as a ‘Companion’ to Search (Bloomberg)

Microsoft's president calls for dialogue on AI (Axios)

Workforce report

Google Workers Stage Rallies Against Job Cuts, Low Wages (Bloomberg)


Can ChatGPT help me at the office? We put the AI chatbot to the test. (Danielle Abril)

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