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Twitter algorithm to be open sourced 'next week,' says Musk

Pay no attention to that Supreme Court case about Twitter's algorithmic liability

If Twitter owner and CEO Elon Musk is to be believed, the social media platform's algorithm is finally going open source, and it's happening "next week." 

"Prepare to be disappointed at first," Musk tweeted, "but it will improve rapidly!"

The notion of making Twitter's algorithm open source isn't new – Musk had been pushing for Twitter's code to be opened up since before he purchased the company for $44 billion last October.

"I'm worried about de facto bias in "the Twitter algorithm" having a major effect on public discourse. How do we know what's really happening?" Musk tweeted in March. "Open source is the way to go to solve both trust and efficacy," Musk said in another tweet.

According to US policy think tank the Brookings Institution, opening machine learning algorithms to the wider developer community can speed adoption and advance science by minimizing time researchers need to build their own software tools. 

Brookings said OSS algorithms could also be a boon for tech sector competition, could help define AI standards and, as Musk implied, help fight algorithmic bias by inviting others to examine the code and run it through algorithm interrogation software.

Twitter 2.0: Not all bad ideas

Twitter's Community Notes team said yesterday that it was adding a new capability to the fact-checking feature: Notifications of new notes on things that users previously interacted with. 

"Starting today, you'll get a heads up if a Community Note starts showing on a Tweet you've replied to, Liked or Retweeted. This helps give people extra context that they might otherwise miss."

Community Notes enable Twitter users flagged as "contributors" (signing up is free, at least for now) to leave notes on a tweet providing more context. Other contributors can vote on a note as helpful or not, and once a certain threshold of positive ratings is reached the note becomes publicly shown on the tweet. 

Qualifications for becoming a contributor are minimal: you need to have a phone number on your account, no recent Twitter violations, to have been on the platform for a certain amount of time, etc. Twitter does claim to review all applications, and says it rates notes based on contributions of people with different points of view, which seems to be determined algorithmically.

Musk didn't take credit for the feature, instead praising the work done by the Community Notes team. "In general, Community Notes is a game changer for combating wrong information," Musk said.

Oh, and that whole Supreme Court case, too

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Gonzales et al. v. Google yesterday, and the outcome could reshape how the internet functions. 

At issue is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that service providers hosting third-party content can't be held liable for whatever its users upload. A particular issue in the case heard yesterday was whether that section of the CDA immunizes companies like Google when they make targeted recommendations.

As we noted in our coverage of the Google case, legal experts told us it's unlikely the Supreme Court will rule against Google.

Obviously, it and other tech industry giants don't want to lose this case, as it could mean they're held liable for the behavior of their algorithms. It's likely Musk doesn't want to face that kind of liability at Twitter either, given its current financial situation.

That makes the timing of Musk's statement yesterday that Twitter would be open sourcing its algorithm as soon as next week coincidental at best – especially considering a similar case that directly affects him is being heard by the Supreme Court today: Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh [PDF].

By the way... From March 20, SMS-based two-factor authentication will be dropped by Twitter for non-Blue subscribers. If you're not a sub, you can use other free authentication methods, such as the Google Authenticator code app.

Even if you are a Twitter Blue subscriber, you should consider using a non-SMS 2FA method anyway as text messages for this kind of thing isn't all that secure.

The Twitter case is trying to determine whether a company that provides generic services to users, and which regularly works to prevent terrorists from using those services, knowingly provided meaningful assistance to terrorists "because it allegedly could have taken more 'meaningful' or 'aggressive' action to prevent such use," lawyers argue in the docket. 

The plaintiffs, relatives of a 2017 ISIS bombing victim, argue that Twitter did little to stop the spread of videos produced by ISIS, and are therefore liable for aiding and abetting terrorism. 

And what would help Twitter's case more than pledging to share all the internal processes that went into potentially violating the US Anti-Terrorism Act? ®

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