Politwoops shutdown raises questions about Twitter’s rules

Can social websites protect their users while still allowing outside groups to hold politicians and other public figures accountable for their statements?
That’s the question at the heart of a recent controversy between Twitter and Politwoops, a series of websites that archived politicians’ deleted tweets whose access to Twitter’s public API was revoked without warning over the weekend.
Twitter made a similar move earlier this year when it shut down the United States version of Politwoops. The many versions of this tweet-archiving tool were run by two separate groups — the Sunlight Foundation and the Open State Foundation — and both have expressed their concern over Twitter’s decision.
Both groups tell me there are no negotiations in place to restore Politwoops’ access to Twitter’s API. But Arjan el Fassad, the director of the Open State Foundation, did say that the group is “exploring a number of legal and technical options” to see if it can build a similar tool without access to Twitter’s API.
“We believe that what public officials, especially politicians, publicly say is a matter of public record,” Fassad told me. “Even when tweets are deleted, it’s part of parliamentary history. Although Twitter can restrict access to its API, it will not be able to keep deleted tweets by elected public officials in the dark.”
A spokesperson for the Sunlight Foundation said that group has no plans to rebuild Politwoops without access to Twitter’s data stream. Yet the group is no less damning in its stance on Twitter’s decision to revoke the tool’s access to information that was publicly available through multiple outlets before now.
“To prevent public oversight when our representatives try to discreetly change their messaging represents a significant corporate change of heart on the part of Twitter and a major move on their part to privatize public discourse,” they said.
“Imagine if the Washington Post printed a retraction of a story, would it demand that all copies delivered to the home with the original story be returned? When a public statement is made, no matter the medium, can it simply be deleted and claimed as a proprietary piece of information?”
Of course, there is a difference between the Washington Post trying to retrieve a physical object and Twitter cutting off access to its service. And “unpublishing” stories, whether it’s to appease advertisers or because they contained factual errors or were plagiarized from another source, happens at online publications.
For its part, Twitter says it’s merely trying to protect its users. A spokesperson said in a statement that the “ability to delete one’s Tweets – for whatever reason – has been a long-standing feature of Twitter for all users” and that it “will continue to defend and respect our users’ voices in our product and platform.”
I came to a similar conclusion when the U.S. version of Politwoops was shut down. As I wrote at the time:

Twitter isn’t only defending politicians; it’s protecting all of its users. I suspect there are more private citizens than politicians using the platform, so if having a reasonable expectation of privacy makes things harder for a site that collects politicians’ gaffes, well, I’m happy to bid Politwoops a fond, but prompt, adieu.

Both the Sunlight Foundation and Open State Foundation have said that they avoided this issue by focusing Politwoops on politicians. There should be a clear distinction between public figures and other Twitter users, both argued, and others have said that Twitter is either incompetent or capitulating to politicians.
This is a thorny issue without a clear solution. Twitter can be blamed for blocking Politwoops’ access to its service because each of these groups argues that they were holding politicians accountable; it could also be chastised for allowing these groups to break the rules meant to protect its users’ privacy.
Let me put it another way: If a restaurant had tinted windows to prevent outside observers from taking pictures of its diners, should it have to smash them whenever a politician or other public figure enters? Probably not. Its patrons, regardless of their status, expect to be afforded the same privacy.
It’s more troublesome that Twitter changed its mind about Politwoops. As the Sunlight Foundation notes in its blog post about this weekend’s shut down:

In 2012, Sunlight started the U.S. version of Politwoops. At the time, Twitter informed us that the project violated its terms of service, but we explained the goals of the project and agreed to create a human curation workflow to ensure that the site screened out corrected low-value tweets, like typos as well as incorrect links and Twitter handles. We implemented this layer of journalistic judgment with blessings from Twitter and the site continued. In May, Twitter reversed course and shut down Sunlight’s version of Politwoops.

It seems that Twitter was fine with smashing its own windows for three years, provided that Politwoops only used its exceptional ability to ignore the rules governing its API for things that actually matter to the public. Why did it change its mind, and why did months pass between the shuttering of the U.S. version of Politwoops and the revocation of these international versions’ access?
Consistent rules can be lived with and worked around. Inconsistent rules, however, lend some credence to the idea that Twitter might not be wise enough to decide what outside groups can do with public tweets. The company should have either shut down Politwoops before or allowed it to run into perpetuity.
In a way, it’s a lot like the controversy created whenever Politwoops did catch deleted tweets that shamed the politicians who sent them. Many of those tweets would have been fine if they hadn’t been deleted; it was only when their senders tried to act like they never existed that problems arose. It’s hard not to appreciate the symmetry between that and Twitter’s current situation.