16 February 2013


'The Politics of Twitter Data' (Alexander von Humboldt Institut fur Internet & Gesellschaft Discussion Paper No. 2013-01) by Cornelius Puschmann and Jean Burgess [PDF]
approaches Twitter through the lens of “platform politics” (Gillespie, 2010), focusing in particular on controversies around user data access, ownership, and control. We characterise different actors in the Twitter data ecosystem: private and institutional end users of Twitter, commercial data resellers such as Gnip and DataSift, data scientists, and finally Twitter, Inc. itself; and describe their conflicting interests. We furthermore study Twitter’s Terms of Service and application programming interface (API) as material instantiations of regulatory instruments used by the platform provider and argue for a more promotion of data rights and literacy to strengthen the position of end users.
In discussing 'Data Rights and Data Literacy' the authors comment that
Contemporary discussions of end user data rights have focused mainly on technology’s disruptive influence on established copyright regimes, and industry’s attempts to counter this disruption. Vocal participants in the digital rights movement are primarily concerned with copyright enforcement and Digital Rights Management (DRM), which, so the argument goes, hinder democratic cultural participation by preventing the free use, embellishment, and re-use of cultural resources (Postigo, 2012a, 2012b). The lack of control that most users can exercise over data they have themselves created in platforms such as Twitter seems a in some respects a much more pronounced issue. Gnip’s CEO Jud Valeski frames the “owners” of social media data to be the platform providers, rather than end users, a significant conceptual step forward from Twitter’s own characterization, which endows the platform with the licence to reuse information, but frames end users as its owners (in Steele, 2011). Valeski’s logic is based on the need to legitimise the data trade - only if data is a commodity, and if it is owned by the platform provider rather than the individual users producing the content, can it be traded. It furthermore privileges the party controlling the platform technology as morally entitled to ownership of the data flowing through it.
Driscoll (2012) notes the ethical uncertainties surrounding the issues of data ownership, access, and control, and points to the promotion of literacy as the only plausible solution:
Resolving the conflict between users and institutions like Twitter is difficult because the ethical stakes remain unclear. Is Twitter ethically bound to explain its internal algorithms and data structures in a language that its users can understand? Conversely, are users ethically bound to learn to speak the language of algorithms and data structures already at work within Twitter? Although social network sites seem unlikely to reveal the details of their internal mechanics, recent ‘code literacy’ projects indicate that some otherwise non-technical users are pursuing the core competencies necessary to critically engage with systems like Twitter at the level of algorithm and database. (p. 4)
In the current state, the ability of individual users to effectively interact with “their” Twitter data hinges on their ability to use the API, and on their understanding of its technical constraints. Beyond the technical know-how that is required to interact with the API, issues of scale arise: the Streaming API’s approach to broadcasting data as it is posted to Twitter requires a very robust infrastructure as an endpoint for capturing information (see Gaffney & Puschmann, to appear). It follows that only corporate actors and regulators -  who possess both the intellectual and financial resources to succeed in this race - can afford to participate, and that the emerging data market will be shaped according to their interests. End-users (both private individuals and non-profit institutions) are without a place in it, except in the role of passive producers of data. The situation is likely to stay in flux, as Twitter must at once satisfy the interests of data traders and end-users, especially with regards to privacy regulation. However, as neither the contractual nor the technical regulatory instruments used by Twitter currently work in favour of end users, it is likely that they will continue to be confined to a passive role.