For the past three and a half years, politicians in the know have lived in fear of Politwoops, a website dedicated to cataloging all of the groan-worthy and regrettable tweets that they can’t help but generate every so often. With the blessing of Twitter, the site had accumulated years’ worth of politically incorrect tweets from senators, congressmen, and presidential candidates alike. Back in June, however, that agreement came to an unexpected end.
Created by Netherlands-based Open State Foundation, the Politwoops API (application programming interface) was distributed to organizations in 31 different countries in order to help facilitate transparency via the collecting of deleted tweets by public officials. In May of 2012, Politwoops was launched in the US by the Sunlight Foundation, a “national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses the tools of civic tech, open data, policy analysis, and journalism to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent to all.”
Shortly after launching, Sunlight Foundation was contacted by Twitter and informed that their website was in direct violation of the social-media platform’s terms of service. After the goals of Politwoops were explained to Twitter, the two websites were able to work out a deal in which less-important tweets, like those with typos or broken links, were left out of Politwoops’ aggregation. Twitter, seemingly satisfied, allowed the website to continue its operations without incident for over three years afterwards.
Terms abruptly changed, however, on June 3. Twitter had cut off Sunlight Foundation’s access to the Twitter API three weeks prior, with no official reasoning given. In fact, Twitter had not communicated with Sunlight at all during the three weeks after cutting off Politwoops. On June 3, Twitter finally reached out to Sunlight to let them know that the decision was irreversible, and that they were not interested in going back and reviewing the initial email conversation the two parties held back in 2012.
For all intents and purposes, Twitter had killed Politwoops for absolutely no reason other than “violating” the terms of service that the organization had been working around problem-free for over three years prior.
Twitter, in a statement to Gawker, reasoned that while it supports Sunlight Foundation’s mission of maintaining transparency and accountability in government, Politwoops’s preservation of deleted tweets was in direct violation of Twitter’s developer agreement. While complying with the decision, Sunlight Foundation made it known that Twitter’s decision to protect the privacy of public officials was in direct opposition to the fundamental rules of democracy.
“A member of Congress does not and should not have the same expectation of privacy as a private citizen. Power can only be accountable with a generous application of transparency,” said Sunlight Foundation president Christopher Gates, in a statement on their website.
Since the decision, the internet has been abuzz with discussions over the legitimacy of Twitter’s claim and of whether Politwoops would be able to somehow reverse the decision. As the internet debate snowballed, Twitter worked on shutting down the API access of Politwoops websites worldwide. On Aug 23, Open State Foundation announced that Twitter had effectively shut down Politwoops, as well as diplomat/embassy tweet tracker Diplotwoops, in the remaining 30 countries.
On Sep 4, an open letter petitioning to restore Politwoops was published, with signees including Human Rights Watch, Free Press, and the Open State Foundation.
While the websites are effectively cut off for the foreseeable future, their archives, with years’ worth of material, are still available. As the debate over personal privacy versus public accountability rages on, journalists and political watchdogs are surely missing the fodder that Politwoops provided; the website was crucial, for example, in holding various politicians accountable for their flip-flopping stances on the Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl hostage situation last year.
With Politwoops still fresh in the minds of journalists and internet users alike, the argument over fair use versus privacy on the internet will surely only grow more intense. In the meantime, it would behoove public figures to fine-tune their Twitter-using strategies in the event that Politwoops, or a similar website, makes a triumphant return.
Featured photo courtesy of Maryland GovPics.