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Trahan, Casten Demand Answers from Musk on Future of Twitter Transparency Policies

Government and Politics

November 20, 2022


LOWELL, MA – Today, Congresswoman Lori Trahan (MA-03), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, and Congressman Sean Casten (IL-06) requested answers from Twitter CEO Elon Musk on the future of the company’s transparency policies and researcher access.

“You have made public commitments to increase transparency and keep existing content moderation policies in place initially, but recent decisions, including those related to account verification and personnel, run contrary to these promises,” the lawmakers wrote. “Specifically, employees dedicated to transparent algorithms, accessibility, child safety workflows, and human rights have been laid off, as have engineers tasked with maintaining core infrastructure.”

Since completing his acquisition of Twitter in October, Musk has moved to slash the company’s workforce in half, firing as many as 3,700 employees. At the same time, the company has rolled out new products, including paid verification subscriptions that enabled anonymous accounts to impersonate verified brands and individuals before the feature was paused, and pledged to shutter a large number of microservices. Given the rapid and extreme changes happening on a daily basis, advertisers, policymakers, researchers, and individual users have expressed concern that the ability to conduct research and analysis on the platform could be threatened.

“Twitter currently has several tools for sharing data with researchers including the Decahose API and Academic Research product track. These tools, along with Twitter’s unique privacy context, have made Twitter one of the most studied social media platforms globally and have led to a better understanding of content labels, bot detection, and news literacy,” the letter continues. “Additionally, Twitter is a signatory to the European Commission’s Code of Practice on Disinformation, which includes measures for empowering researchers and increasing transparency.”

Trahan has been a leader in the push for independent researcher access to platforms to study the impacts of services and their content moderation practices, product design decisions, and algorithms. Earlier this year, she introduced the Digital Services Oversight and Safety Act (DSOSA), comprehensive transparency legislation cosponsored by Casten that would create a Bureau of Digital Services Oversight and Safety within the U.S. Federal Trade Commission tasked with investigating systemic risks on online platforms and issuing transparency requirements and guidance on content neutral safety processes and design features. Under the legislation, the Bureau would include an Office of Independent Research Facilitation tasked with standing up and overseeing a system through which certified researchers can study the impacts of covered platforms.

To better understand Musk’s plans for Twitter’s transparency policies and researcher access, Trahan and Casten requested answers to the following questions by December 2, 2022:

    Do you plan to keep the APIs and product tracks that enable researcher access to data available for the foreseeable future? If yes, do you expect pricing changes and how will you ensure that prices do not make access prohibitive?

    Prior to October 27, 2022, how many employees were working on maintaining the Decahose API and Academic Research product track? How many employees remain in these positions?

    Due to an intentional decision or unintentional technical failure, have the features of the Decahose API or Academic Research product track changed since October 27, 2022? If yes, what led to those changes?

    As Twitter continues to make structural changes, how will you ensure that both the terms and conditions associated with these tools are enforced and that user data rights are considered and protected?

    If the research community begins publishing studies about the impact of Twitter’s recent policy changes under your leadership, will you commit to not retaliating with tactics such as limiting access?

    In September of this year, Twitter opened membership to the Twitter Moderation Research Consortium to a broad set of researchers studying content moderation. Is this program still operational? What plans are in place to ensure such a program delivers on its goals?

A copy of the letter sent today can be accessed HERE.