UPDATED 9/4/2015: Access joined a major coalition of rights groups from five continents in support of Politwoops, calling on Twitter in an open letter to restore API access to the digital accountability tool. Signers from global digital rights and transparency organizations include Access, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, Human Rights Watch, Sunlight Foundation, and Open State Foundation — the original creator of Politwoops. You can read the letter here.
Last week, Twitter shut down a tool that helps people hold politicians accountable in 29 countries around the world. The Netherlands-based civil society group Open State Foundation created Politwoops, which scans the Twitter accounts of politicians for tweets they’ve deleted. Deleted tweets can provide insight to the viewpoints of public officials, and journalists have been using Politwoops to keep representatives accountable for what they say publicly. In the spirit of transparency, Open State allowed other organizations to use the code of the tool, and use it they have, everywhere from Argentina, to Turkey, to Spain, to the United Kingdom. But on August 21, Twitter turned it off.
Twitter informed Politwoops that it was violating the terms of its Application Programming Interface, or API. Three months earlier, Twitter decided to stop letting the Sunlight Foundation, a U.S. transparency organization, use the tool. To justify that decision, Twitter explained that “No one user is more deserving of that ability [to delete a tweet] than another. Indeed, deleting a tweet is an expression of one’s voice.”
Twitter is arguing that deleting a tweet is the same regardless of who does it — an elected official or an ordinary user. However, that ignores the fact that if the public suddenly can’t see what an official has said publicly, it creates problems for transparency and accountability. Further, when public officials use Twitter to amplify their political views, they’re inviting greater scrutiny. Journalists who use tools like Politwoops are less interested in revealing embarrassing typos than they are in shedding light on statements that may be significant to the people these politicians represent. In this case, the right to freedom of expression — which includes access to information — outweighs the official’s right to a retroactive edit.
This is an especially disappointing decision because Twitter has been a champion of transparency and free expression for some time. Now it has made a unilateral decision that affects people in 29 countries. Twitter maintains the right to do so under the terms of its API license. But that’s not a good enough reason to do something with public policy implications akin to fiat by contract between unequal bargaining parties.
At the very least, the Open State Foundation — which has maintained Politwoops for five years without any dedicated funding — deserves the courtesy of a phone call or meeting with Twitter to come to a more constructive solution. We understand that Twitter has not spoken in person to Open State Foundation to justify its decision, instead choosing to correspond only by email. We think Twitter can do better. We’ll be reaching out to Twitter over the next few days, and we’ll let you know what we learn.
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Photo credit: Andreas Eldh