Rights groups want Twitter to reverse ban on political-watchdog tool

Nearly 20 organizations write an open letter demanding that the social network restore Politwoops, a tool that captures politicians’ deleted tweets.

A coalition of rights organizations has urged Twitter to reverse a ban on a tool that archives politicians’ deleted tweets, raising the question of what constitutes public records in the digital age.

Earlier this week, the coalition issued an open letter to Twitter, demanding the company restore access to its service for Politwoops, a Web tool maintained by the Netherlands-based Open State Foundation. Politwoops collects tweets that politicians have posted to the social network and then deleted, allowing transparency organizations worldwide to publish them.

“Twitter’s decision holds grave consequences for free expression and transparency around the world,” wrote the coalition, which includes Human Rights Watch, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Canada’s OpenMedia International. The groups said Twitter should consider “the right of people to access to information where it serves the interest of public accountability and transparency.”

San Francisco-based Twitter didn’t respond to phone calls and an email seeking comment, but it said in a letter to the groups that republishing the deleted tweets was a violation of its terms of use. It also argued that “deleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice,” according to a copy of the letterreleased by the coalition.

The conflict over access to Twitter’s stream of tweets highlights the difficulty social-media companies face as politicians, celebrities and other public figures use their services to reach audiences. The ease of use of Twitter, Facebook and other services has already caused embarrassment for many users, who have deleted hasty tweets or posts that provoked controversy.

On Thursday, sports broadcaster ESPN suspended Curt Schilling from his role as a commentator after an anti-Muslim tweet. In July, Donald Trump’s campaign blamed an intern fortweeting a collaged image that featured a picture of Trump, the American flag and several Nazi soldiers.

People make inflammatory comments between posts of baby photos and inspirational poems and then exercise their option to delete them, effectively rewriting their Twitter history. Politwoops has highlighted these moments among public figures.

Supporters say these deleted messages give us better insight into who our civic and cultural leaders are. Twitter argues these people have as much of a right to privacy as anyone.

The Open State Foundation created Politwoops in 2010 to track Twitter comments made and later deleted by politicians, officials and other public figures. The tool was designed to keep public figures accountable for their remarks.

In 2012, the US-based Sunlight Foundation used the Politwoops tool to create a website that lets people search an archive of deleted tweets using criteria such as a politician’s state, party or office.

In May, Twitter suspended the Sunlight Foundation’s access, citing a violation of its terms of use. Those include restrictions on resyndicating Twitter data and a promise to respect user privacy.

The social network suspended other Politwoops accounts worldwide in August.

The coalition criticized Twitter’s reasoning, saying the social network confuses privacy with a lack of transparency and accountability.

“The citizen’s right to freedom of expression — which includes access to information — outweighs the official’s right to a retroactive edit,” the group said in its letter.

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