Twitter Accessibility Bots Are Being Threatened Under Elon Musk’s Ownership

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Twitter Accessibility Bots Are Being Threatened Under Elon Musk’s Ownership

Twitter’s meltdown may be for most of us merely funny or a mild inconvenience, yet for some, it’s terrifying and stressful how tools necessary to stay connected to already hard-fought-for communities are toyed with in the least responsible and flippant ways possible.

Over two months ago, Elon Musk announced an intention to begin charging at least $100 a month for access to Twitter’s API, necessary for bots on Twitter to work. This is a particularly exorbitant fee for those who are basically volunteering their time, energy, skills and in many cases spoons to maintain tools necessary for the use of Twitter to many disabled people, especially the blind and visually impaired.

Hannah Kolbeck, a long-time activist and currently out-of-work web developer due to autistic burnout, already spends $50 a month, covered in part by Patreon donations, just to keep the AltTextUtil bot connected to Google’s Text Extraction Service, ensuring the tool is actually useful to blind folks by accurately extracting text from images posted to Twitter without Alt text.

Things would later turn out to be even worse than initially apparent, as Kolbek eventually shared that the usage of her particular bot, @AltTextUtil, is so high, it would require an Enterprise API access plan which costs $1,300 a month. “[Crowdfunding is] just not something that’s going to work here,” she posted to Twitter on February 13 after over a week of unsuccessful efforts to bring the issue into public awareness. As of late March, it seems the proposed price has catastrophically increased, Kolbek shared on Twitter that it would now cost $42,000 a month.

Musk’s initial announcement sent what remains of Blind Twitter—after already disabling many desktop accessibility apps earlier this year—into a frenzy. This especially impacted fandom folks who remain part of the few relatively consistent blind-accessible fandom communities such as #TwitterOfTime. They’ve been tirelessly pushing #SaveA11yBots with almost zero support from the outside. Kolbek herself, despite trying to reach out to the media, has failed to see any meaningful impact, with which she had very little hope to begin

“I admit that I hold very little hope in Twitter valuing accessibility enough to allow, bots like mine, bots like Caption Clerk, bots like GetAltText, to continue working,” Kolbek told Paste.

It is also worth noting that most Twitter alternatives, such as Mastodon, do not have a mobile app; a must for many casual users of Twitter, especially within fandom communities, disabled and nondisabled folks alike, (yes, blind people not only use iPhones, but also the Twitter mobile app). Twitter alternatives that have a mobile app, such as Hive, lack screenwriter functionality and still do not support alt text at all despite repeated promises that they would. Not-to-mention Hive lacks a PC version which itself greatly limits options for use of third-party accessibility applications.

Twitter was once considered the most accessible online space for the varying needs of the blind, vision impaired and the larger disabled communities. It’s not easy to replace. While many blind users have migrated to Mastodon, others still face an irreplaceable loss.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk backed off from Pepito The Cat, amending that he can provide “light, write-only access” for free. Initially, he only wanted to provide this to verified users, yet the one thing that remained consistent is the “write-only” language, a technicality that would exclude all bots except for the post-x-every-hour accounts. Accessibility bots require not just write-access to the API, but read-access. They need read-access to not just respond to user tags, but also to access images for analysis and extraction.

The initial deadline of February 9 he gave for the new API policy came and went… only later that day he officially announced pushing back the date. Yet again on the second announced date too, he delayed it this time without even giving a new deadline. This limbo, one that was supposed to last “a few days,” remained since the middle of February—over a month!—until just now yet another new one has been set for April 29. Needless to say, it has been, and continues to be, a long and stressful fight to #SaveA11yBots.

“Community is really not something you can just relocate, community is tied to a place in a lot of ways… and… that is particularly unfortunate in this moment, because that community is very tied to a place with someone in charge who just manifestly does not care about that community,” Kolbek said.

It’s easy to assume all we’re losing is merely a tool for extracting text from images, as it is the best known and currently most used function of @AltTextUtil, yet it’s crucial to understand the larger history of Kolbek’s bots in order to grasp the place these tools actually have in communities.

Her first bot was actually @AltTextReminder, started around 3 years ago —before Twitter had a built-in reminder functionality— precisely because Kolbek herself would often forget to add alt text. Unsatisfied with other tools available at the time, she created her own that worked in seconds, instead of whole minutes, making it far more useful because action could be taken immediately rather than after the tweet had likely begun to build up interactions.

“My guiding principle in creating tools, is I want to make doing the right thing as easy as possible… so making it easier, possible… seemed like it would make it much more likely that images would be posted with alt text,” Kolbek said.

From there it was, as she described it, a “winding road” that led to where we are today. She attempted to create a tool to facilitate volunteers to write alt text underneath Portland protest images, a community she was actively part of at the time, though, in her words, that was “not terribly successful.” Switching her focus a bit, she created the @AltTextUtil Twitter account, with its first function allowing screenreader users to ask the bot to “check” the tweets on people’s profiles to determine how often they use alt text and assisting in decisions on who to follow.

She hadn’t abandoned making the creation of alt text accessible and therefore possible in itself though, because she continued to look for ways to facilitate wider use of alt text. This included education, “One of the things that I got asked a lot, and that I saw asked a lot was: what makes good alt text or how do I write alt text?” She then set out to formulate a goal-oriented, to-the-point explanation of the purpose of alt text.

From here several other functionalities were added, including the best known one, OCR, which stands for Optical Character Recognition, itself has a nuanced history as part of the bot. It’s a tool for screenreader users to extract text from images on Twitter, however, it cannot analyze non-text elements. Nonetheless, considering how often screenshots of text are circulated online, often without a way to find the plaintext source to copy-paste, it’s become an invaluable tool for blind and sighted people alike.

Kolbek also started, a library to store retrievable alt text for commonly used images. This itself started out as a tool for those who find themselves posting the same image over and over, so they don’t have to find their old tweet to copy the alt text they’ve already written. She then experimented and got a working proof of concept running on making the library public, free to be referenced by others and, even more importantly, added to. Essentially it became a project to crowdsource alt text in the classic Wikipedia-era style of the internet.

Ultimately, however, she had to put the project on pause due to not just the cost but also her own progressing disabilities, now Long-Covid in addition to the aforementioned autistic burnout. Finding a new maintainer for the site to take the build to its true potential is “still something I want to do and that I hope to do at some point,” Though she’s “not actively looking at this point” primarily due to the initial fruitlessness of the effort. The website itself now takes you to a specs description and an announcement of its need for new manpower. It’s been that way since December.

As it is now, there’s been a critical lack of support from outside disabled communities. 

“I see it as part of a larger pattern,” Kolbek said. “It can be hard to see privilege until you experience oppression.”

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