Twitter wades back into Politwoops debate

Twitter wades back into Politwoops debate

Twitter has begun conversations with Politwoops advocates, but there are no signs yet that it will lead to the wholesale revival of the tool aimed at archiving lawmakers' deleted tweets.

A little more than a week ago, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made a public speech promising a new commitment to developers. He specifically said he wanted the company to "empower" tools like Politwoops, which the social media company effectively killed only a few months back.  

No one is exactly sure what Dorsey’s words mean, but Twitter on Friday reached out to the Sunlight Foundation and the Open State Foundation. Another group has been talking with the company since late August.

"We can confirm that we've begun conversations with Twitter. We are hopeful that we can develop a constructive solution that promotes the accountability and transparency enabled by Politwoops," said Deji Olukotun, who does advocacy for the group Access Now.

Access Now, which works with Twitter's policy team in other areas, previously organized an open letter to publicly pressure the social media company to begin conversations, restore the tool and provide exceptions to its terms of service.

It has since largely muted public criticisms of Twitter's past decision as it works the inside track. Since late August, Access Now has had about four direct conversations with Twitter's policy team about Politwoops.

There had been minimal progress recently until Twitter told a number of stakeholders they would want to tune into Dorsey’s speech at a developers conference.

"We have a responsibility to communicate our roadmap in a clear and transparent way to everyone in this community," Dorsey said in the speech earlier this month. "We have a responsibility to have an open dialogue with you all to make sure that we are serving you in the best way. And we have a responsibility [to] continue to empower organizations that bring more transparency to public dialogue, such as organizations like Politwoops."

As the archiving tool remains dormant, advocates watching from the outside are waiting to see if Dorsey’s words actually produce results.  

“It was nice to hear Jack Dorsey admit that Twitter made a mistake with their surprise policy reversal to shut down Politwoops, but I haven't seen any action to back up those words,” said Nicko Margolies, the former Sunlight Foundation employee who led the project before it was shut down.  

After years of allowing Politwoops to operate, Twitter earlier this year unexpectedly revoked use of its API, which gave access to Twitter's stream and allowed developers to build the deletion archive around it.

Sunlight's tool in the United States was cut off in June, and the Open State Foundation's tool, which operated in about 30 countries, was pulled in August.

Twitter justified the move by saying the tools violated its privacy terms of service, but the explanation received harsh blowback from those who said the tweets of public officials should warrant an exception.

"I think maybe within Twitter itself there have been different takes on how to deal with issues like Politwoops," said Arjan El Fassed, the head of the Open State Foundation.

El Fassed said he would have preferred to "sit around the table beforehand" to work out an agreement, but said he looked forward to speaking with the company.

Twitter never explained the timing of its decision. Back in 2012, the company's general counsel and the API team came to a handshake agreement with the Sunlight Foundation to keep the tool in operation if the deletions were manually curated.

That deal came at a time when there was a whole team at Twitter dedicated to getting politicians to sign up for the platform. One former Twitter employee familiar with the agreement said the 2012 decision was made independent of its political activism or growth team, even though it could have been a "raincloud over that growth drive."

The Twitter staffers involved in the deal are no longer at the company. Since then, the company has gone public and increased its lobbying footprint in Washington.

The former employee expressed disappointment at Twitter's decision this year and said lawmakers should be held to a higher review. But the source added there might be more to the story, and noted that making exceptions is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" calculation of where to draw the line.
"While I am disappointed, I trust that the people who are still there are making the right decisions," said the former employee, who remains a shareholder.

Speaking more broadly about Twitter's new commitment to developers, the former employee said time would tell if the company makes good on its public statements.  

"If Jack is committed to actually like re-building this bridge with the developer platform, then we are probably going to see some policy changes, and hopefully more increased transparency into their developer roadmap," the former employee said. "If that doesn't happen, then we can start questioning whether or not it was just a PR move on his behalf because, you know, the world is focusing on Jack right now being the king of Twitter," the former employee said.