Rights groups are going after Twitter for banning a tool that digs up deleted tweets from politicians

Twitter has been criticised by a coalition of human rights groups for its decision to ban Politwoops, a social media watchdog that keeps a record of deleted tweets from politicians.

In June this year, the social network revoked the API access of the US version of Politwoops, meaning it couldn’t surface removed tweets. In August, it then banned more than 30 other implementations of the tool across the globe, including Britain and the European Parliament.

Twitter argues that the service, by republishing deleted tweets, broke its developer agreement and undermined politicians’ expectations of privacy. But its defenders say that it fulfils a vital service as a watchdog.

Sometimes the deleted tweets they flagged up were just typos. Other times, they revealed politicians trying to distance themselves from prior statements or shift their position on an issue. In one high-profile incident, Politwoops was able to highlight half a dozen politicians welcoming a US soldier and former Taliban captive back to the US — and then deleting their tweets after the case became politically charged.

In an open letter published on Friday, a coalition of human rights organisations from around the globe have slammed Twitter’s decision and called on the social network to restore Politwoops’ API access. Signatories include the US-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, Open State Foundation (a Dutch non-profit that created the original tool), Human Rights Watch, Access, and others.

The letter argues that Twitter, by appealing to politicians’ right to privacy, “conflates transparency and accountability with privacy.” It continues (emphasis ours):

We agree that when users decide to delete tweets they are engaging in expression — but add that the public has a compelling interest in the expression of public officials. Recognising this public interest, courts have long held that public officials do not receive the same treatment for privacy. Further, when public officials use Twitter to amplify their political views, they invite greater scrutiny of their expression. Journalists and civil society utilise tools like Politwoops to understand the views and commitments of the people these politicians represent — and the politician or candidate’s own intents and perspective. In this case, the citizen’s right to freedom of expression — which includes access to information — outweighs the official’s right to a retroactive edit.

Business Insider reached out to Twitter for comment.

When Twitter suspended Politwoops globally in August, it told the Open State Foundation that the “decision was guided by the company’s core value to ‘defend and respect the user’s voice.’ The ability to delete one’s Tweets — for whatever reason — has been a long-standing feature of the Twitter service. 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.”

But others have also made the argument that as public figures, politicians have a different — lesser — expectation of privacy than others on the platform. Branding Twitter’s US ban a “terrible decision,” Philip Bump wrote for The Washington Post in June:

An anonymous user is not a public figure; a member of Congress is. The former has a high expectation of privacy, as what he says and does is not newsworthy. The latter — according to a lot of legal precedent — doesn’t enjoy the same privilege. If Bill Clinton has an affair with a staffer, that’s more newsworthy than if the guy who manages your grocery store does.

In a statement accompanying the open letter, Suelette Dreyfus, executive director of Blueprint for Free Speech said: “Politicians make decisions for all of us every day … We need to know what’s in their heads yesterday, today, and beyond. If they take us into a war, we have a right to know the reasons they gave at the time, not how they spin it later.”

The open letter is available here.

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