After taking over Twitter last year, Elon Musk famously yanked API access from third-party apps and changed API pricing tiers to make it difficult for researchers to access and study the platform’s data. Now the company he’s since renamed X has backtracked in the European Union where legal obligations in the bloc’s Digital Services Act (DSA) require larger platforms (so called VLOPs) to provide data access to external researchers doing public interest research on systemic risks.
An update to X’s developer terms suggests that researchers in the EU will be able to access and use the social network’s licensed data for DSA-related research purposes.
The terms state research should only focus on the “detection, identification and understanding of systemic risks in the European Union” — a phrase lifted almost exactly word-for-word from the DSA — and further specify that usage is allowed “only to the extent necessary for X to comply with its obligations under the DSA”.
Article 40 of the DSA, which covers data access and scrutiny, also stipulates large platforms must facilitate data access to vetted researchers, such as by providing data through online databases or APIs.
X was designated a VLOP by the EU back in April. While a compliance deadline for these larger platforms kicked in in late August.
Under Musk, the social media company doesn’t have an active research program and according to posts on its developer community website researchers are struggling to get answers to their questions about access. In March, X’s developer account claimed the platform is looking to develop a separate program for academia but there haven’t been any further updates.
Earlier this year, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, singled out Twitter, as the company was still called then, for potentially blocking data access to academics — saying Musk’s bid to end free API access could impact the study of the flow of disinformation on the platform.
Concern about the corrosive societal impacts of disinformation has spiked in the EU since Russia invaded Ukraine — a topic Musk has frequently waded into with his own divisive tweets and retweets.
The European Commission, which is responsible for enforcing the DSA on larger platforms, has a suite of powers under the regulation on disinformation-related concerns as the regulation requires VLOPs to take steps to counter systemic risks — with the risk of penalties of up to 6% of global revenues for non-compliance.
In recent weeks EU officials have sought more information from X on steps it’s taking to remove illegal content and respond to reports of disinformation related to the Israel-Hamas war. But so far the Commission has not opened a formal investigation proceeding — choosing instead to crank up the pressure on X via public letter followed by a formal request for information.
While the Commission hasn’t focused on data access in these recent warnings to X, EU officials will undoubtedly view Musk opening DSA-specific access to EU researchers as a sign the regulation is working.
It’s not clear what kind of wider program Musk and CEO Linda Yaccarino will put together to allow researchers outside the EU to access the platform’s data as yet. Evidently, X is prioritizing data access for researchers in Europe in order to comply with legal obligations.
Here is the full text of changes X has made to its developer agreement:
TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas contributed to this report