What Musk’s open-sourcing plan may mean? An Analysis

As Elon Musk announced his takeover of Twitter, he issued a statement underlining some of the changes that he would be making to the social media platform.

While free speech seems to be at the core of Musk’s plans, one key change that he highlighted was to make the platform’s algorithms open source in order to “increase trust”.

To be sure, what Musk referred to was not the source code for Twitter itself but the content recommendation algorithms. The latter is code used by Twitter to decide which posts are visible, and how such posts are prioritized. It is also colloquially referred to as the content recommendation algorithm.

Making the recommendation algorithm open-source, will allow anyone to read the computer code that forms the algorithm. Recommendation algorithms are proprietary and form the core intellectual property of key social media platforms, like Twitter, Facebook and TikTok.

Interestingly, since the takeover, Twitter has locked down its source code repository on Github, which was so far available in the open. It contained the platform’s source code, not the recommendation algorithm.

Does this mean that Twitter will be divulging their proprietary data in the open?

Not really. Domain experts like Jayanth Kolla, Co-Founder at Converge Catalyst, said that simply making the algorithms open-source does not particularly give too much away. The real effect of these algorithms would only be possible to assess if the code is paired with Twitter’s user data – and their content recommendation policy document, said Ramesh Kestur, Adjunct Faculty and Senior Research Fellow at the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore.

Artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms such as these make decisions in real-time, and even the programmers who originally coded them are often at a loss as to why a decision was made.

Venkatesh Hariharan, an open source expert said that open sourcing the algorithm is the first step towards greater transparency. However, if it is not accompanied by good documentation and a willingness from Twitter’s experts to answer questions, those who are unfamiliar with the code will not be able to do much with it.

Interestingly, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had taken a stab at this last year. In the fourth-quarter earnings call in 2021, Dorsey had suggested that a “marketplace” approach to ranking algorithms on social media could give more choice.

He said that such an approach, where users will be presented with multiple ranking algos to choose from, could help address problems facing Section 230 of the US’ Communications Decency Act. This Act deals with intermediary protections, a purpose that is served by section 79 of India’s IT Act.