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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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.