Twitter rate-limits itself into a weekend of chaos

Hey Elon – here's an idea for your next poll: 'Should I step down as CTO of Twitter?'

It's been a few weeks since the chaos at Twitter rose to a level worth noting, but that changed this weekend when owner and CTO Elon Musk announced the imposition of limits on how many tweets users can see each day.

It began on the afternoon of Saturday, July 1 with a tweet from Musk informing tweeps that harsh rate limits were being enacted "to address extreme levels of data scraping and system manipulation". Under the new order, plain-old unverified users (ie, those that opted not to pay for Twitter Blue) were told they could only see 600 posts a day, with new accounts limited to just 400 tweet views.

Verified accounts were awarded the right to view 6,000 tweets, so chalk that up as one more benefit that comes with that Blue subscription. 

It only took a few hours for Musk to update that total, allowing 8,000/800/400 views for verified, unverified and new users, respectively. That was followed shortly after by news that the limits were increased to 10k/1k/500, but it's unclear if those increases were ever applied or when the rate limiting of Twitter would end. 

The Register asked about the current status of rate limits at Twitter, how long Musk tends to maintain those limits and to question Elon's justifications. Despite the fact that there's a new CEO bailing water out of the boiler room, Twitter doesn't appear to have reconsidered its lack of a comms team - we only received the usual poomoji for our trouble. 

Maybe it's time for a new CTO, too

Twitter has faced a lot of problems lately that Twitter CTO and executive chairman Musk, who stepped down as CEO of Twitter when Linda Yaccarino stepped into the role in early June, has blamed almost entirely on the greed of AI companies. 

The data that Twitter contains, or so Musk's argues, is invaluable to large language model AIs like ChatGPT and Google Bard, and they should be paying for the right to scrape it. 

In addition to imposing wildly expensive prices on Twitter's data APIs, the Twitter tech lead also decided last week to block all users not signed in to Twitter from viewing any posts whatsoever, inadvertently killing tweet embeds in other apps. This, Musk claimed on Friday, would also be temporary. 

"Per my earlier post, drastic & immediate action was necessary due to EXTREME levels of data scraping," Musk said. "It is rather galling to have to bring large numbers of servers online on an emergency basis just to facilitate some AI startup's outrageous valuation." 

As with all things Twitter and Musk related, the truth of the matter is trickier to sort out.

Take, for example, the fact that Twitter under Musk has made a habit of not paying its bills in order to save money and attempt to break even. That arguably unwise move hasn't been confined to bonuses, legal fees and suppliers - Twitter has reportedly been stiffing Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud, which host much of its infrastructure, too.

Twitter reportedly owed AWS as much as $70 million (£55m) as far back as March, which led Amazon to threaten to withhold advertising payments due to the bird site. Twitter's reported $200-$300 million yearly contract with Google Cloud has also been going unpaid. Yaccarino reportedly renegotiated a start to those payments in late June, mere days before Twitter's contract with Google Cloud was due to expire on June 30 - the day before the rate limits were enacted. 

We've contacted Google and Amazon to get some insight into the state of their respective relationships with Twitter and whether they've cut off access to Twitter bits hosted in their clouds, but haven't heard back from either.

If it isn't the unpaid bills catching up to Twitter, bad coding may be the cause. A number of people claim to have found evidence that, since blocking Twitter access to anyone not signed in, Twitter's front end appears to be DDoS'ing its back-end.

Developer Sheldon Chang pointed out as much in a post to Mastodon over the weekend, complete with video capture of Chrome's developer tools showing a wall of failed get requests. Chang said the Twitter web app was "firing off about 10 requests a second to itself to try and fetch content that never arrives," which he said is likely creating "hellish conditions that the engineers never envisioned."

The problem is even worse on Tweetdeck, according to Molly White, who posted similar video of Chrome's dev tools littered with 404 warnings as Tweetdeck tried to retrieve content that would normally be available to Twitter visitors that aren't logged in.

That's surely a good reason to impose rate limits, but like the unpaid bills, it's unclear whether Twitter's move is also the reason behind the weekend's chaos. We asked that question too, and will have to hope Yaccarino decides to reverse course on another Musk decision. ®

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