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Thousands of Reddit communities go dark to boycott third-party app charges

WASHINGTON (AP) – Thousands of Reddit discussion forums have gone dark this week to protest a new policy that will charge some third-party apps to access data on the site, leading to worries about content moderation and accessibility.

More than 8,000 subreddits were dark as of Tuesday afternoon, according to a tracker and live Twitch stream of the boycott. Participants ranged from small forums to large communities with tens of millions of subscribers — including the r/funny, r/music and r/todayilearned pages seen on the online discussion site.

“Reddit is killing third-party applications (and itself),” other subreddits wrote in posts seen on the platform’s homepage.

The new fees are part of broader changes to Reddit’s API, or application programming interface, that the company announced recently.

Organisers of the blackout, which began on Monday, say Reddit’s changes threaten to end key ways of historically customising the platform — which relies heavily on the work of volunteer moderators. Subreddit “mods” often use tools outside of the official app to keep their forums free of spam and hateful content, for example, as well as improve accessibility.

Reddit, a subsidiary of New York-based Advance Publications, says supporting large, high-usage third-party developers to access its data is too expensive. The company also notes that the new fees will only apply to eligible apps that require high usage limits, and the majority of API users will not have to pay for access.

Here’s what you need to know.

File photo shows the Reddit app icon on a smartphone. PHOTO: AP

WHAT IS API? AND HOW IS REDDIT CHANGING ACCESS TO THIRD-PARTY APPS?

In short, an API allows computer programs to communicate with each another. Third parties have used Reddit’s free API access in the past, for example, to request data and build apps that work with the platform.

But Reddit announced it would be changing its API access polices earlier this year. Starting July 1, Reddit plans to charge third-party apps requiring higher usage limits.

“Reddit needs to be a self-sustaining business, and to do that, we can no longer subsidise commercial entities that require large-scale data use,” Reddit CEO Steve Huffman wrote in a Friday “ask me anything” (AMA) on the platform, where he took questions from users about the changes.

Not all third-party apps will be charged, as the policy is based on usage levels, and non-commercial, accessibility-focused apps will also continue with free access, the company said. Reddit also noted that API access will remain free for moderator tools and bots.

WHY ARE SUBREDDITS PROTESTING THIS CHANGE?

Reddit’s API changes have caused outrage — as many Redditors say they are concerned about losing long-used third-party resources. Popular third party apps, including Apollo and Reddit Is Fun, have already announced plans to shut down at the end of the month due to costs of the API changes — with Apollo developer Christian Selig estimating fees would total about USD20 million a year.

Reddit’s backbone of volunteer moderators who rely on these and similar apps will likely feel the brunt of the impacts, experts note.

“While Reddit has promised that moderation tools will not be affected by changes to the API, many moderators rely on third party apps and access to data archives to effectively do their work,” Sarah Gilbert, postdoctoral associate at Cornell University and Citizens and Technology Lab research manager, said in a statement — later pointing to how risks of moderator burnout and essential retention.

Gilbert added that API access helps moderators keep communities safe and “more quickly respond to spam, bigotry, and harassment.” Third-party apps are also important for screen readers, she said, as the official Reddit app is not accessible for people who are visually impaired.

WHEN WILL THE REDDIT BLACKOUT END?

Some subreddits participating in this week’s blackout will return to Reddit in 48 hours, organisers said.

Others said they may boycott for longer, with the possibility of leaving the platform permanently “unless the issue is adequately addressed, since many moderators aren’t able to put in the work they do with the poor tools available through the official app,” one widely-circulated Reddit post about the protest read, per The Verge.

“This isn’t something any of us do lightly: we do what we do because we love Reddit, and we truly believe this change will make it impossible to keep doing what we love,” the post continued.

In Friday’s AMA, Huffman addressed moderators’ feedback and said that Reddit respects “when you and your communities take action to highlight the things you need.”

Beyond Reddit, Twitter ended free API access earlier this year, in a move that also sparked outrage.

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