Elon Musk’s move to introduce a pricey paywall to access Twitter’s data is set to upend thousands of academic and developer projects, in his latest controversial attempt to generate new revenues to turn round the business.

Twitter has laid out plans to this weekend push developers over to a new monthly pricing structure for its API, a tool for them to access the company’s data, having previously offered it for free or for minimal sums.

The move has prompted a backlash from developers who expect to be priced out of access, and even big customers such as Microsoft. Some developers have already received emails in recent weeks notifying them they have been “suspended from accessing” the API and must sign on to one of the new tiers, according to copies of the communications seen by the Financial Times.

Twitter plans to charge at least $42,000 a month for developers to access its data streams, with various tiers rising into six-figures, according to multiple people familiar with the matter and first reported by Wired. Below that, there is only a bare-bones free tier and a “tester” tier, which offers access to very limited data and costs $100.

Experts warn the move could thwart research into political manipulation ahead of the 2024 US election, risk the future of some small businesses and reduce engagement on the social media platform.

The new pricing comes as part of Musk’s efforts to wrestle the lossmaking company’s finances, while also dealing with an advertiser exodus and an unwieldy debt servicing bill.

The big fees have already prompted some companies such as Microsoft and Intercom to drop the use of Twitter from their social media management tools. On Friday, Air France tweeted: “Since Twitter has changed their conditions, our customer service by direct message on this network is unavailable.”

Many smaller developers do not think they will be able to afford the data, and are now scrambling to scoop up as much as they can before their access is revoked, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.

“Elon Musk is stifling any innovation that is not coming from big enterprise corporates that he could squeeze half a million dollar a year contract out of,” said Amir Shevat, who was previously head of product for Twitter’s developer platform but left the company three weeks after Musk took over.

“He’s making a closed garden ecosystem. It’s not the everything app, it’s everything that Elon wants app,” he added.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

In recent years, developers have been able to access Twitter’s API in order to build their own bots, apps and services, such as market intelligence tools for brands to track product conversations on the platform and carry out sentiment analysis.

Academics have also used it to study political conversations to root out online manipulation, while newspapers have typically used it to automatically post the news they publish on their sites.

“There’s no economic incentive for me to develop because the pricing is outrageous,” said Andrei Taraschuk, who has created some 500 bots for sharing art.

The shake up is the latest turmoil to hit Twitter since Musk bought the platform for $44bn in October. The billionaire has already alienated a large swath of advertisers with his content moderation approach, as well as some of Twitter’s most powerful users over his plans to charge $8 a month for its “blue tick” verification.

In March, Musk said Twitter’s finances are improving to the point the social media company could return to posting positive cash flow next quarter. But the company remains on the hook for $1.5bn of annual interest payments on $13bn of debt he used to fund the acquisition.

Musk’s API move comes in marked contrast to previous steps by Twitter to open up the platform’s data further to developers.

“There was a lot of trust in Twitter’s developer ecosystem,” said Alex Volkov, chief executive of Tagum, a tool that translates videos and had a bot that has now been suspended by Twitter. “Now that is all going to go away.”

Joshua Tucker, co-director of the New York University Center for Social Media and Politics, said his team was having “frantic meetings” to establish what to do next, as “no academic programme” is likely to be able to pay.

“If we don’t have research on the impact of these platforms on society then how can we make good policy?” he said, calling for regulation that mandates access to this type of data to researchers.

On top of harming developers and academics, Chris Messina, the product consultant who invented the hashtag, warned that without the innovation from developers, the platform could easily become “stale”. 

He added: “By restricting access to the Twitter data, it makes Twitter less useful for the people who are generating the data in the first place.”

Other platforms have announced plans to charge more for their data. Last week, Reddit revealed plans to charge large companies such as Google, OpenAI and Microsoft that use all of its data to train their large language models for API access. But its API would still remain free to developers who build tools that help people use the platform, it said.

Musk himself is developing plans to launch a new AI start-up to compete with OpenAI, which could use Twitter content as data to train its language model.

“If other social media platforms follow the same path, big data becomes big business,” said Alessandro Bernardi, social media scientist at social media management group Social Elephants.

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