Rights groups call on Twitter to reverse its ban on Politwoops accounts

September 4, 2015, 6:00 AM UTC
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A coalition of rights groups from more than a dozen different countries have posted an open letter to Twitter (TWTR), asking that the company restore access to more than 30 Politwoops accounts it recently blocked that tracked the deleted tweets of politicians and public figures. Signers include Access, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, Human Rights Watch, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Open State Foundation — the original creator of Politwoops.

“The right to information, free speech, and privacy protect people and enable them to hold the powerful to account,” Arjan El Fassed, Executive Director of the Netherlands-based Open State Foundation, said in a prepared statement. “By blocking Politwoops, Twitter has decided to forsake these values, and the only people who will benefit are the powerful.”

Other major signers of the open letter include Alternatif Bilisim (Turkey), Art 34-bis (Italy), Asociacion por los Derechos Civiles (Argentina), Blueprint for Free Speech (Australia), Derechos Digitales (Latin America), Jinbonet (Korea), OpenMedia (Canada), Paradigm Initiative (Nigeria), Pirate Party (Turkey), and Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (Mexico).

Twitter blocked the U.S. version of Politwoops in May, saying the right of politicians to delete their tweets superseded the right of others to retain those tweets for the public record. Last month, Twitter extended the block to the other versions of Politwoops operating in a number of other countries. In defending its decision, the company said “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.”

Deji Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager for Access, said in a statement that “Twitter made a unilateral decision that impacted transparency around the world in 32 countries. Politwoops is a global tool for the digital age, and Twitter has clamped down on a volunteer-run service that operates in the public interest.”

In the letter, the signatories say Twitter’s action against the Politwoops accounts “holds grave consequences for free expression and transparency around the world,” and that itconflates 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.”

The letter adds that “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.” Among other things, the groups call on Twitter to make clear exceptions in its developer agreement and policy for “information shared in the public interest, such as for transparency or journalistic purposes.”

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