Twitter doesn't like you avoiding ads

The social network has announced tough new restrictions on how third-parties can build apps.

Twitter has announced in a post titled Delivering a consistent Twitter experience that developers producing third-party twitter apps need to start including all the major features of the branded Twitter apps and website. Michael Sippey writes:

We’re building tools for publishers and investing more and more in our own apps to ensure that you have a great experience everywhere you experience Twitter, no matter what device you’re using. You need to be able to see expanded Tweets and other features that make Twitter more engaging and easier to use. These are the features that bring people closer to the things they care about. These are the features that make Twitter Twitter. We're looking forward to working with you to make Twitter even better.

The proximal cause of the news is the launch of a new feature on Twitter, expanded tweets, which lets publishers show previews of what a tweet is linking to directly in the interface:

Yet really, the news goes to the heart of Twitter's strategy as a company. Like most companies of its pedigree, it makes money through advertising. It sells tweets, trends, and promotion in the "who to follow" box. But if you use a third party twitter app – that is, any app not made by twitter, like Tweetbot for iPhones, Hootsuite on the web, or Ubersocial on Android – you don't see those.

That is bad enough for the company, but up to now, the users of those apps are a minority on the service. The vast majority of twitterers use the website itself, or one of the official clients on mobile devices. So why should they care that nerds are going to be forced to do what they do normally?

Because Twitter aren't just trying to monetise the users they currently miss out on. They also want to – at the risk of being alarmist – block the exits.

In April 2010, the company acquired the developers of Tweetie, the then-most popular independent app (this was at a time, hard as it is to believe, when they didn't have an official app), and rebranded it as the official app. Less than a year later, they introduced a feature known as the "quickbar". In terms of usability, it was one of the most obnoxious features added to the service since it's inception – an always-on view of the trending topics at the top of the screen which took up valuable space on the small phone.

The quickbar was such a failure that twitter pulled it from the app, in the fear of sparking an exodus to other clients, but at the same time as backtracking on that, the company made its first ominous pronouncement on the future of third-party developers, warning them not to:

Build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience.

This is, of course, what most apps do – they replace, rather than adding to, what the official client can do – but for the last year, Twitter has stayed quiet on its threats. Until now. Next time Twitter introduces something similar to the quickbar, there will be nowhere to run.

They can take Tweetbot from our phones, but they'll never take it from our hearts. They'll just disable the API so it can't access the site.

The Twitter logo, manipulated.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.