We, the undersigned, are international human rights and transparency groups based around the world. We are writing in opposition to Twitter’s recent decision to revoke the ability of the tool Politwoops and similar tools to utilize Twitter’s Application Programming Interface, or API. We believe Twitter’s decision holds grave consequences for free expression and transparency around the world.
In 2010, the Netherlands-based Open State Foundation created the Politwoops tool to publish Tweets deleted by politicians. From then onwards, the Open State Foundation rolled out Politwoops with the help of individuals and organizations in 32 countries, including the Sunlight Foundation in the U.S. Twitter then revoked the ability of the Sunlight Foundation to use its API in May 2015 and it revoked the Open State Foundation’s access to the API on August 21.
Transparency and due process
To justify its decision, Twitter explained that, “No one user is more deserving of that ability [to delete a tweet] than another. Indeed, deleting a tweet is an expression of one’s voice.”
Twitter’s reasoning conflates transparency and accountability with privacy. 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. Recognizing 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 utilize 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.
In terms of process, this decision involved minimal dialogue with the Open State Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation. There was no opportunity to appeal the decision, which impacted a widely-used, volunteer-run service. The action carried out by Twitter was arbitrary and cuts against the very principles of transparency that Politwoops was designed to confront.
We recognize that the API license gives Twitter discretion to enforce its terms. However, Twitter should also take into account human rights when it exercises that discretion—and particularly the right of people to access to information where it serves the interest of public accountability and transparency in a democratic society. There are times when what is legal must be outweighed by what is right.
We note that Twitter has been a leader in transparency and free expression since its founding. The platform has helped foster numerous advances in journalism and in accountability. This makes the unilateral decision by Twitter so troubling and off-course. Accordingly, we urge you to:
- immediately restore access for the Politwoops tool to the Twitter API in every country around the world;
- convene stakeholders to develop a forward-looking API policy, or other constructive solution, that allows civil society groups to effectively promote accountability and transparency for the public interest;
- make clear exceptions in the “Twitter Developer Agreement & Policy” for information shared in the public interest, such as for transparency or journalistic purposes; and
- participate in multistakeholder organizations which facilitate meetings between civil society, investors, academics, and corporations on decisions impacting human rights.
Alternatif Bilisim (Turkey)
Art 34-bis (Italy)
Asociacion por los Derechos Civiles (Argentina)
Bits of Freedom (Netherlands)
Blueprint for Free Speech (Australia)
Derechos Digitales (Latin America)
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Human Rights Watch
Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet (Korea)
OpenMedia International (Canada)
Open State Foundation
Paradigm Initiative (Nigeria)
Pirate Party (Turkey)
Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (Mexico)
Sunlight Foundation (U.S.)