Twitter flip-flops on Politwoops (again)

Twitter has reversed its decision to bar Politwoops, a service which collects and preserves deleted tweets from public officials, from using the public Twitter API.

“Today we’re pleased to announce that we have come to an agreement with The Sunlight Foundation and The Open State Foundation around Politwoops,” the company said. “We look forward to continuing our work with these important organizations, and using Twitter to bring more transparency to public dialogue.”

Both organizations previously criticized Twitter for attempting to hide what public figures said in public but later recanted by deleting their tweets. Here’s what a spokesperson for the Sunlight Foundation, which backs the US version of Politwoops, told me when Twitter moved to block the international version:

‘To prevent public oversight when our representatives try to discreetly change their messaging represents a significant corporate change of heart on the part of Twitter and a major move on their part to privatize public discourse,’ they said.

‘Imagine if the Washington Post printed a retraction of a story, would it demand that all copies delivered to the home with the original story be returned? When a public statement is made, no matter the medium, can it simply be deleted and claimed as a proprietary piece of information?’

Twitter defended the move by saying that the “ability to delete one’s Tweets – for whatever reason – has been a long-standing feature of Twitter for all users” and that the company would “continue to defend and respect our users’ voices in our product and platform.” Providing cover to politicians actually helped other users.

Now the company has reversed its decision — the second time it’s done so where Politwoops is concerned. First it said the tool would be allowed to function on its platform; then it blocked Politwoops’ access to its public APIs; and now it has reversed course so the service can monitor the tweets politicians want to hide.

This flip-flopping makes sense given the importance of politics to Twitter. But, as I wrote when the company shut down the international version of Politwoops, the company’s inability to consistently enforce its rules (let alone uphold certain ideals) is the most worrisome part of the back-and-forth between it and the tool:

Consistent rules can be lived with and worked around. Inconsistent rules, however, lend some credence to the idea that Twitter might not be wise enough to decide what outside groups can do with public tweets. The company should have either shut down Politwoops before or allowed it to run into perpetuity.

In a way, it’s a lot like the controversy created whenever Politwoops did catch deleted tweets that shamed the politicians who sent them. Many of those tweets would have been fine if they hadn’t been deleted; it was only when their senders tried to act like they never existed that problems arose. It’s hard not to appreciate the symmetry between that and Twitter’s current situation.

And here the company has changed its mind again. Let’s see if that remains the case in a few months — we’re due for another reversal of course around March.