PeopleBrowsr wins temporary restraining order against Twitter

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Yesterday, Twitter and social analytics company PeopleBrowsr appeared in a San Francisco court to fight over access to data from millions of Twitter users. Twitter lost, and PeopleBrowsr was granted a temporary restraining order, which prevents the social network from limiting its access to the data until the outcome of a preliminary injunction hearing, scheduled to start on January 8 next year.

While Twitter argues that it has every right to revoke full access after its contract with PeopleBrowsr expired, the company says that it is largely dependent on the data to survive. In a statement released by the company, PeopleBrowser CEO Jodee Rich said that it “relied on Twitter’s promise of openness when we invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours of development time.”

In his declaration in support of the restraining order, Rich said that his service “receives every one of the more than 340-million tweets posted on Twitter daily through what is called the Twitter ‘Firehose,’ and makes this massive flow of data useful by highlighting relevant information, spotting trends, and identifying influential people.”

Twitter planned to reduce the access PeopleBrowsr would have to the data on 30 November after terminating its agreement with the company, which Rich said would cause “devastating damage” to his business as his clients rely on full and detailed insight based on a “comprehensive picture of Twitter activity”.

He argues that limiting the amount of data PeopleBrowsr has access to, or requiring it to use the information from other third-party data suppliers, would make its services less effective. It uses direct access to the firehose as the foundation for its products, like Kred, which shows you which of your posts and growing your social influence, and its API platform which is used by organisations like tech site Mashable, marketing service Radian6 and the US department of defence.

Promises and contracts:

While PeopleBrowser is positioning its case as part of a broader debate about how Twitter is increasingly closing off access to developers, Twitter says that is within its rights to change the way it does business as the service grows.

PeopleBrowsr argues that it has been working with Twitter for the past four years on the assumption that it would continue to promote an “open ecosystem” and allow it access to the full firehose. In his declaration, Rich cites everything from official Twitter blog posts to conference coverage and a video interview with co-founder Evan Williams to support his belief that Twitter would not limit developers’ access to its information. He says his company has been paying Twitter some US$1-million per year for access since a contract renewal in 2010 (for the first two years of its agreement, it used Twitter’s data free of charge). Twitter says the contract expired in 2011, and has been renewed on a month-to-month basis since then.

Twitter maintains that this is simply a contractual issue: in its opposition to the restraining order (obtained by TechCrunch), it says that PeopleBrowsr is “attempting to dress its case up as some sort of grand antitrust or interference case” when it was aware that, in terms of the contract, either party could terminate the agreement without case with just 30 days notice. It gave notice on 25 July this year, and extended the notice period to 90 days to allow PeopleBrowsr more time to transition to using data from another supplier.

Twitter says that while it continues to share data with hundreds of companies, it has negotiated channel resyndication partnerships with data services like Gsnip, Topsy and DataSift, and suggests PeopleBrowsr rather sets up a contract with one of them. It recently launched a certified products programme, which requires all other customers to instead go through the approved partners should they want access to the data. It argues that it cannot be asked to “preserve forever its earlier business model, or continue to be bound by a contract that expired more than a year ago”.

In its objection, Twitter says that PeopleBrowsr was seeking an order of the court “requiring Twitter to continue to do business with PeopleBrowsr, on PeopleBrowsr’s terms, under an expired commercial contract with an express bargained-for termination provision.”

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