Another one of Elon Musk’s great ideas has led to widespread criticism and a corresponding whiplash policy reversal. Twitter has said it will once again allow governments and publicly funded entities to access its application programming interface (API) and make automated posts for free on the platform. The social media site announced the about-face change on Tuesday afternoon in a tweet from the developer account.
“One of the most important use cases for the Twitter API has always been public utility,” @TwitterDev wrote. “Verified gov or publicly owned services who tweet weather alerts, transport updates, and emergency notifications may use the API, for these critical purposes, for free.”
The post mirrors what detractors of recent Twitter policy changes have been saying all along. One of the few indisputable public goods that Twitter has provided in the past is a way for people to access information quickly during emergencies. For a time, Musk was doing his best to nuke that use case.
This newest update follows months of chaotic policy shifts surrounding Twitter’s API. Access to the software intermediary allows users to more easily schedule and automate posts (i.e. build bots), among other things. But in February, the billionaire-owned site announced it would start charging for API access. There was immediate outcry from developers, researchers, and others. Twitter delayed the change in response. But eventually, Twitter released a fee schedule and began revoking accounts’ permissions to post unlimited, automated tweets.
Accounts belonging to the National Weather Service (including their Tsunami Alerts page), major city’s transit networks, and others lost the ability to post automated warnings and updates in April. For some, free access was restored after the interruption—for others not so much.
Many accounts like that of Columbia, South Carolina’s local NWS office posted that they would no longer be using Twitter to provide real-time advisories. Twitter asked New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to pay $50,000 per month to continue automated tweets. In response, the MTA, which runs NYC’s extensive subway and bus system, said it would cease tweeting out transit service alerts last week.
Now, Twitter has said it’s reversing course. But it remains to be seen if that will be enough to restore confidence in the site and get public entities to resume posting. In the MTA’s April 27 statement announcing the end of service alerts on Twitter, the transit operator noted “the reliability of the platform can no longer be guaranteed.” Yet, restored API access or not, another flip-flop doesn’t exactly scream “reliability.” Musk could opt to change course once again, in accordance with his apparently numerous whims. Just because @TwitterDev posted that free API access will return for some users, that doesn’t mean it’s actually true.
On Tuesday evening, the MTA official account posted that it would be re-assessing its stance on Twitter service alerts. “Glad that Twitter got the message. We’re happy that they’ve committed to making API access free for the MTA and other public sector agencies,” the transit operator wrote.
However, the MTA did not outright say that it would bring back service alerts on the platform. In Twitter’s tumultuous Musk-era, guaranteeing anything is probably a losing bet.
Gizmodo reached out to NYC’s MTA and the Columbia, South Carolina NWS office to get more information about how they plan to move forward on Twitter. This article will be updated with more information if they respond.