TECH
08/25/2015 07:00 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2015

Cutting Off Politwoops, Twitter Follows The Needs Of Politicians, Not Public Interest

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The executives who once called Twitter the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party" don’t work at Twitter anymore.

It shows.

In June, Twitter abruptly cut off access to Politwoops, a website operated by the Sunlight Foundation that preserved deleted tweets sent by elected officials in the United States. Then last weekend, Twitter dropped the hammer on Politwoops' sister services, cutting off access to Diplotwoops and Politwoops in 30 countries around the globe.  

In doing so, Twitter shut down dozens of popular services that enabled the public to see what diplomats, legislators, mayors, governors, presidents and other elected officials (or, in most cases, their staff) once had tweeted but then decided to delete, thus removing a layer of accountability for public speech. 

As author Rebecca MacKinnon wrote about in her seminal book about democracy in the age of the Internet, Consent of the Networked, we're now living in an era in which much public speech is hosted on private platforms. Corporations own the social media networks, cable companies, radio and television stations, newspapers and online outlets (including The Huffington Post) that relay government officials' proclamations to the general public. Former CEO Dick Costolo once said Twitter was like the original town square, the Greek "Agora," a "product of the world" that could "represent the democratic ideal of access for all." But Twitter isn't acting as a "town square" here; it's acting more like a newspaper publisher or cable company, making a decision about how a story or channel can be used or accessed. 

The Open State Foundation, which operated the sites, protested the decision. 

"What elected politicians publicly say is a matter of public record," wrote Arjan El Fassed, the foundation's director, in a blog post. "Even when tweets are deleted, it’s part of parliamentary history. These tweets were once posted and later deleted. What politicians say in public should be available to anyone. This is not about typos but it is a unique insight on how messages from elected politicians can change without notice."

The decision shows Twitter "is either incapable of making essential distinctions, or becoming submissive to powerful users — and either scenario should damage everyone’s trust in the platform," wrote T.C. Sottek, a senior news editor at the Verge, who called on Twitter to reverse the decision.

Twitter, as a private technology company, has the right to make this adjustment and is now consistently enforcing its terms of use for developers: If developers use Twitter's API, they are supposed to "take all reasonable efforts" to promptly "delete content that Twitter reports as deleted or expired."  

In a statement to Harvard University's Nieman Lab, a Twitter spokesperson defended the move and policy:

The ability to delete one’s Tweets — for whatever reason — has been a long-standing feature of Twitter for all users. We built into our Developer Policy provisions a requirement that those accessing our APIs delete content that Twitter reports as deleted or expired.

 

From time to time, we come upon apps or solutions that violate that policy. Recently, we identified several services that used the feature we built to allow for the deletion of tweets to instead archive and highlight them. We subsequently informed these services of their noncompliance and suspended their access to our APIs.

 

We take our commitment to our users seriously and will continue to defend and respect our users’ voices in our product and platform.

The rationale that Twitter provided to the Open State Foundation, however, wasn't really about equitable enforcement of policy and developers, although it was cloaked in rhetoric fighting for the users. It's about fear and permanence: 

Imagine how nerve-racking – terrifying, even – tweeting would be if it was immutable and irrevocable? No one user is more deserving of that ability than another. Indeed, deleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice.

After reading these two short statements, I was left with more questions than answers. 

For instance, why end access for these services that preserve deleted tweets by elected officials in 2015, as opposed to when the Sunlight Foundation launched Politwoops in 2012?

I asked Chris Gates, the president of the Sunlight Foundation, about this in June, and he was as mystified as he was in his eulogy for Politwoops. 

Shortly after the service launched, Twitter told the Sunlight Foundation that it violated the company's API Terms of Service "on a fundamental level." According to Gates, Sunlight negotiated a workflow where Sunlight staff "screened out corrected low-value tweets like typos, links and Twitter handles," adding a "layer of journalistic judgment with blessings from Twitter" -- and that situation endured until June 2015. What changed in the interim, and why?

Journalists are certain to screenshot newsworthy tweets by government accounts and elected officials. What will Twitter's approach be to engaging media organizations hosting screenshots? 

Other entities use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to ask for takedowns of content that infringes upon their intellectual property that have been tweeted. How is Twitter going to approach media organizations that report on what individuals tweeted or shared that they since deleted, including pictures, video and links to articles? What will Twitter's approach be to journalists who screenshot and tweet deleted tweets on their own Twitter accounts? 

I've asked Twitter all of these questions. I'll update this post if they decide to provide The Huffington Post with any answers. 

These aren't easy questions, though. As Twitter helpfully informs us, every tweet has a permalink, effectively making each one into a miniature blog post. If you're willing to pay, you can instantly search for every one of the billions of tweets sent to date. (If you're not, you can at least download your own Twitter archive and search a spreadsheet.) This makes some Twitter users uncomfortable. John Herrman, a technology journalist, automatically deletes all of his old tweets, removing the record of his interactions and thoughts on the platform. 

Nick Bilton, a New York Times columnist, thinks that's a great idea:

Unfortunately, the ease of saying things online hasn't been accompanied by increased wisdom about whether a given comment would make sense shorn of context. That's particularly true in a political context, where quick tempers and poorly considered rhetoric on hot issues can drive instant reactions that don't play well later. A lie can be tweeted around the world while the truth is waiting for a smartphone to reboot. That may be one reason that growing numbers of young people have adopted ephemeral social media platforms like Snapchat and secure private messaging apps, adopting strategies to keep their private lives off of Twitter and Facebook.

Much of what remains archived in the U.S. Politwoops is generally mundane -- typos, grammar mistakes, incorrectly formatted pictures -- but there are also sharper partisan comments, presidential endorsements, or photographs of meetings with foreign leaders or more embarrassing mistakes. 

Far too many people have chosen to treat Twitter as trivial over the years, tweeting out jokes, political statements or pictures that subsequently led to their professional or personal detriment, if anyone noticed. And journalists around the world have noticed, particularly when they could review these archives.

That record of the public speech of politicians is why Politwoops mattered, much as the Internet Archive does. That's why journalists like Nieman Lab Director Josh Benton see the confusion over policy, privacy and journalism as problematic. As he wrote in June, "the public utterances of public officials deserve scrutiny beyond those of everyday citizens — that’s a core value of a free press." Both Mike Masnick, the founder of TechDirt, and Washington Post reporter Philip Bump agree that members of Congress are not average users. Bump was critical of Twitter's recent decision, particularly with respect to its impact in countries outside of the United States: 

But Twitter isn't just a company that matches consumers and advertisers. It's an integral part of real-time global communications, including communications from elected officials. The failure to set a different standard for different types of users -- especially as candidates increasingly use Twitter as part of their political campaigns -- is a disservice to the community that uses it. This is not a court of law in which a comment can be stricken from the record. It's a public square with a hot mic. 

Although its record is uneven, Twitter's history on free speech, censorship and online freedom has generally been laudable. 

In prioritizing the implicit desires of elected officials and their staff to control the permanence of speech on the platform over the public interest value in preserving it, however, Twitter is implementing its own "right to be forgotten" -- except that, unlike Google in Europe, there is no European court that has mandated removal or preservation. There's just a beleaguered technology company with a soon-to-be-announced new CEO, a slowly growing user base and unanswered questions about how the media should report on what our elected officials say there.

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