Twitter goes full douchebag

Twitter is to block most third-party apps, which don't comply with their strict rules on access.

We've written, at length, on Twitter's attempts to safeguard the profitability of its network against all-comers, so this shouldn't come as any surprise: the company has confirmed that, from March 2013, they will begin enforcing a de facto ban on third-party apps.

The ban is revealed in two passages in a post to developers by Twitter's director of consumer content, Michael Sippey. The first tells developers that the company's "display guidelines" will become "display requirements", while the second explains that from now on, any service with more than one million users will need special permission from Twitter to continue growing.

The display requirements are an incredibly strict set of requirements which not only hit their intended target, third-party consumer clients like Tweetbot, Econfon or Ubersocial, but also a huge number of unintended ones – Jason Kottke says that his aggregation site Stellar meets just four of the 16 requirements, while Marco Arment, developer of the popular Instapaper reading app, thinks that his "liked by friends" feature will have to be pulled, or at least rewritten, to comply.

Other rules look likely to hit services like Flipboard (which breaks 5.a., "tweets that are grouped together into a timeline should not be rendered with non-Twitter content. e.g. comments, updates from other networks") and Storify and Favstar (which break 3.b., "no other social or 3rd party actions may be attached to a Tweet"). Or they would, had Twitter not clarified that actually, those latter two are the "good" apps. Ryan Sarver, the company's director of platform, tweeted that they are what they want in the ecosystem.

This ought to be good news - two of the most useful third party apps are safe - but in fact, it's even more upsetting. It shows that, from the off, Twitter's rules all contain an implicit "...but you can ignore these if we like you." If that is the case, it's not hard to imagine that they also contain an implicit "...and no matter how well you follow these, if we don't like you, you're off the service." Everything using the network does so at the capricious whim of its overlords.

The million user limit is even more indiscriminately applied. Any application, no matter what it does or how well it complies with the published rules, needs to "work with [Twitter] directly" to get more users than that. It is, essentially, a rule that gives the company carte blanch to pick and choose whether any company getting too big can be allowed to grow.

Most companies try to keep customers by keeping customers happy. Twitter is clear in its intentions: it wants to keep customers by making it extraordinarily difficult for them to leave. It is holding its network hostage; you can go, but you can't take your friends with you.

In July, when Twitter first acted on their intentions to block clients which "mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience" I wrote that:

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.

But with these changes, Twitter hasn't just hit the apps used by a small (nerdy) minority of users. There are going to be very few Twitter users who aren't affected in some way or another by this attempt to turn the site into a Facebook-style walled garden.

Ben Brooks, author of the Brooks Review, sums up the news:

We like to make analogies to Apple in tech blogging circles, so here goes: this is the moment in Twitter’s life where they kicked Steve Jobs out of the company and told Sculley to run it.

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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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

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