Elon Musk backtracks on Twitter API paywall following developer backlash

This post has been updated.

When Twitter announced last week that it would no longer provide free access for its API as part of the platform's new monetization strategy, the backlash from developers, academics, and researchers was swift.

Twitter was slated to begin charging users on Thursday to access its API, or Application Programming Interface — the software that allows users to gather public data from the platform and program automated bots and applications — but has since modified its policy again.

The paywall would have affected popular accounts such as TweetDelete, a bot that deletes users' old tweets in bulk, weather and earthquake trackers that post real-time data, and Thread Reader, a bot that "unrolls" long Twitter threads. Academics, researchers, and scientists also use the API to study online behavior and gather data on hate speech and misinformation.

However, after pushback from developers, CEO Elon Musk backtracked on the idea. In a series of tweets, Musk first suggested access to the API would be available to all verified users. He then declared that there would be a free version available after all, though only for certain bots.

"Responding to feedback, Twitter will enable a light, write-only API for bots providing good content that is free," Musk tweeted on Feb. 4.

On Wednesday, Twitter revealed the final changes to some of its API policies. The current free access for the API will be available until February 13, and after that, a new free access level will be offered with a limitation of 1,500 tweets per month.

In a statement, Twitter declared that free access is "extremely important to our ecosystem."

Other changes to the API include a paid basic access level for $100 per month with less API usage but with an added feature that lets users access Twitter's ads API.

Changes to Twitter's API rules under Musk

Previously, Twitter offered three free access levels for its primary API: Essential, Elevated, and Academic Research. The social media company also offers premium versions with additional features, though it doesn't list the prices for premium access.

Twitter has a mostly open API, meaning anyone can sign up to use the API. However, users are required to apply for developer accounts and declare the purpose of the account in a questionnaire.

While many Twitter bots have an "automated" label under their name that identifies them as bots, fake and spam accounts still exist.

That has been a primary concern for Musk, who vowed in April 2022 to fight the bots or "die trying!" in his $44 billion buyout of the social media company.

It was also a sticking point in Musk's Twitter acquisition. At one point, the Tesla CEO claimed that Twitter had published an incorrect number of fake accounts and threatened to back out of the deal if Twitter didn't provide him with additional data about bots and fake accounts.

Several months into his ownership of Twitter, Musk began targeting the free API overall. He stated that the "free API is being abused badly right now by bot scammers & opinion manipulators. There’s no verification process or cost, so easy to spin up 100k bots to do bad things."

Elon Musk gestures as he speaks during a press conference at SpaceX's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas on February 10, 2022. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty)
Elon Musk gestures as he speaks during a press conference at SpaceX's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas on February 10, 2022. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty) (JIM WATSON via Getty Images)

Developers responded to Musk by explaining that the monetized API wouldn't entirely stop spam accounts, according to TechCrunch, as these bots don't use the official API but use stolen access keys instead.

By January, however, Twitter began quietly purging API access for third-party or alternative apps such as Twitterrific and Tweetbot.

Twitterrific, which was launched by Iconfactory in 2007, was the first Twitter desktop client that allowed users to view tweets in real time. Twitter's famous blue bird logo was adapted from Twitterrific. The app is now out of business.

"We are sorry to say that the app’s sudden and undignified demise is due to an unannounced and undocumented policy change by an increasingly capricious Twitter — a Twitter that we no longer recognize as trustworthy nor want to work with any longer," Sean Heber, who worked on Twitterrific, wrote in late January.

Software developer wearing a mask holds out a smartphone with showing his Twitter bot on the screen.
Dayi Li, a computer scientist who created software for Twitter account VaccineBotTO, helps people in high-risk downtown Toronto areas find available vaccine appointments on April 22, 2021. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images) (Steve Russell via Getty Images)

The backlash grew when Twitter announced on Feb. 2 that it would charge users for API access. Multiple bot accounts not wishing to pay the new price — including Alt Text Reader, which makes tweets more accessible for visually impaired users — stated they would likely shut down.

“I foresee a lot of good free bots going away,” Bill Snitzer, who runs the LA QuakeBot, a Twitter bot that provides data on earthquakes as they happen, told Yahoo Finance at the time.

Student developers and academics also expressed concerns about what the policy change would mean for research and gathering data.

“This decision limits the scale and scope of research that can be conducted,” Dean Freelon, associate professor and researcher at the University of North Carolina, told Yahoo Finance about the proposed API paywall. “That means we’ll know less about how Twitter is used for both good and ill, which I would argue is a net loss for society.”

And although Twitter has rolled back its policy to continue to offer a version of free API access, the change has been met with skepticism from some developers.

"[It's] not clear if this is fully 'free,'" Tim Chambers, U.S. Digital Practice Lead at Dewey Square Group, told Yahoo Finance. "It might require TwitterBlue verification, as in past Tweets, Elon mused that all such accounts needed to be 'verified.' If so, that is $100 dollars to $130 dollars per bot per year."

"But even if fully free, it appears to be write-only, in keeping with Elon’s past musings, and only about 50 posts per day could be published," added Chambers, who has been researching the exodus of Twitter bots to Mastodon. "That alone kills many, many nonprofessional bots, who need read access, or who post far more than that per day by design."

Chambers also expressed doubts about the new $100 per month paid basic access level.

"Requiring read-and-write access for $100 a month, or $1,200 a year, kills off another whole tier of good bots, and not to mention, entire classes of academic or independent researchers," he said. "The devil will be in the details of how much a 'low level of API usage' is as to how bad it hits those who can afford to pay that tier."

Additionally, Twitter announced it will shut down its current premium API access level, which is billed as a paid subscription. Instead, the platform is encouraging users to opt for the enterprise access level — a more expensive offering than premium, Chambers said.

"This is a new chapter for the Twitter API to increase quality, reduce spam, and enable a thriving ecosystem," Twitter said in a statement on Wednesday.


Tanya is a data reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter. @tanyakaushal00.

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