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June 4, 2015, 2:25 p.m.
LINK: sunlightfoundation.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   June 4, 2015

You’ve probably heard by now that Twitter has killed off Politwoops, the Sunlight Foundation’s project to detect when American politicians delete tweets after posting — often a sign that they realize they’ve said something they shouldn’t. Twitter argues that Politwoops is in violation of its developer agreement. (Kudos to J.K. Trotter, who I believe was the first to report on this.) Here’s Twitter’s statement:

Earlier today we spoke to the Sunlight Foundation, to tell them we will not restore Twitter API access for their Politwoops site. We strongly support Sunlight’s mission of increasing transparency in politics and using civic tech and open data to hold government accountable to constituents, but preserving deleted Tweets violates our developer agreement. Honoring the expectation of user privacy for all accounts is a priority for us, whether the user is anonymous or a member of Congress.

Sunlight’s president, Christopher Gates, has written a eulogy for the site that fleshes out the details:

What our elected officials say is a matter of public record, and Twitter is an increasingly important part of how our elected officials communicate with the public. This kind of dialogue between we the people and those who represent us is an important part of any democratic system. And even in the case of deleted tweets, it’s also a public part — these tweets are live and viewable by anyone on Twitter.com and other platforms for at least some amount of time…

Politwoops was created because public communications from public officials should be available to anyone who wants to see them. The site isn’t just about blunders, but rather revealing a more intimate perspective on our politicians and how they communicate with their constituents. It has created a unique lens to reveal how the messages from elected officials can change without notice or explanation — because Politwoops did not allow for such reversal of messaging to quietly be swept under the rug.

Gates notes that Twitter had explicitly okayed Politwoops soon after its launch in 2012:

Days after Politwoops launched in 2012, Twitter contacted the Sunlight Foundation and told us, “Your service violates our API Terms of Service on a fundamental level.” 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, links and Twitter handles. We implemented this layer of journalistic judgment with blessings from Twitter and the site continued.

We are truly mystified as to what prompted the change of heart, and it’s deeply disappointing to see Twitter kill a project they had supported since 2012. It is also disturbing to us that our feed was cut almost three weeks ago and our only direct communication came from Twitter last night, when we were told that their decision was not something that we could appeal, and, most surprisingly, they were not interested in reviewing any of the email conversation from 2012. Clearly, something changed — and we’re not likely to ever know what it was.

Two thoughts. First, Sunlight ran the U.S. version of Politwoops, but it’s an international project, started in the Netherlands and expanded to many countries from there. The international sites I checked seem to still be working, but presumably they’ll face the same Twitter hammer.

Second, while I Am Not A Lawyer, it’s worth noting how broad the wording of the developer agreement is. Here’s the part that covers what developers — a.k.a. anyone who’s build any app on top of the Twitter API — are supposed to do around deleted tweets:

Only surface Twitter activity as it surfaced on Twitter. For example, your Service should execute the unfavorite and delete actions by removing all relevant Content, not by publicly displaying to other users that the Tweet is no longer favorited or has been deleted.

In other words, if it’s deleted on Twitter, you have to delete it on your Service. But note that your “Service” isn’t just the Twitter app you’ve built with the API. The developer agreement defines your “Services” this way:

Services ‒ Your websites, applications and other offerings that display Content or otherwise use the Licensed Material.

That isn’t just limited to something automatically generated by a program using the API. It’s your entire website, so long as its displays any Twitter “Content,” which is also defined very broadly (“Tweets, Tweet IDs, Twitter end user profile information, and any other data and information made available to you through the Twitter API or by any other means authorized by Twitter, and any copies and derivative works thereof”).

It’s noteworthy that Sunlight’s dance in 2012 was based on creating a human curation workflow for looking at these deleted tweets — the “layer of journalistic judgment” Gates references. That takes the deleted tweet from a direct API-generated product to something journalistic. That argument worked in 2012; it apparently doesn’t in 2015. Erasing that journalistic distinction could conceivably allow Twitter to argue the display of any deleted tweet in any form on a website was a violation of the developer agreement — so long as the Twitter API was in use anywhere on the site.

Now, realistically, Twitter isn’t going to tell The New York Times to take down a story centered on a deleted congressional tweet — the blowback would be 100× what they’ve faced in the past 24 hours.

But the fact that Twitter now explicitly says the journalistic exception it once recognized is no longer valid — and the fact that its developer agreement language defines the governed “Services” so broadly — demands, at a minimum, that Twitter explain itself more thoroughly than a one-paragraph statement. The public utterances of public officials deserve scrutiny beyond those of everyday citizens — that’s a core value of a free press.

There has been no community online that has taken to Twitter more than journalists. And, to its credit, Twitter’s record on journalistic issues has been as strong or stronger that that of its tech-company peers. But it owes journalists a better explanation than this.

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