Are Kirsten Gillibrand and John Boehner’s Deleted Tweets Off Limits?

New service Politwoops may violate Twitter's Terms of Service

There's been significant media coverage and buzz over the past 24 hours surrounding Politwoops, a service from the Sunlight Foundation which purports to aggregate politicians' deleted tweets. Sure sounds fun. But does it violate Twitter's Terms of Service?

The platform, which launched in the United States on Wednesday, is described by Sunlight Foundation communications coordinator Nicko Margolies in a blog post as "a searchable window into what they hoped you didn't see," picking up on everything "from minor typos to major gaffes."

Recent examples include Speaker John Boehner's deleted tweet: "We need to delete excessive govt regulations, spending-driven debt, & tax hikes that hurt #smallbiz #4jobs"

Or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's "Disappointed w/@SpeakerBohener's comments on student loans today. Congress must act to stop rates from doubling on 7/1"

According to the Sunlight Foundation the collection already features over 3,000 tweets collected over the past six months. The group claimes it launched Politiwoops to increase government transparency, even if many mistakes seem to be typos and just poorly timed announcements.

However, a recent legal request from Twitter to halt a subpoena for three months worth of public tweets (many of which had been deleted) from an Occupy Wall Street protester, thrust the issue of deleted tweets and tweet privacy into the spotlight. Politwoops, which has existed in 12 other countries for several years, muddies the waters of privacy with regard to deleted tweets further, as the service exists primarily to hold political leaders accountable for that which they've broadcast and then deleted via Twitter. That might actually be a Twitter no-no.

See Twitter's 'Developer Rules of the Road,' second section of the page, under rule number four, "Be a good partner to Twitter", section B.

"Respect the features and functionality embedded with or included in Twitter Content or the Twitter API. Do not attempt to interfere with, intercept, disrupt, filter, or disable any features of the Twitter API or Twitter service, and you should only surface actions that are organically displayed on Twitter.

    * For example, your Service should execute the unfavorite and delete actions by removing all relevant messaging and Twitter Content, not by publicly displaying to other end users that the Tweet was unfavorited or deleted."

Twitter could not be reached for comment. However, it appears though that Politwoops' collection of tweets would constitute content not "organically displayed on Twitter," specifically, material that "was unfavorited or deleted" might actually a violation of the terms of service. 140elect's Zach Green, a political Twitter consultant (with no affiliation to the social network) notes that Twitter "historically cracks down only when somebody complains" in these situations.

"Twitter's real goal seems to be to keep users satisfied and protect their rights," said Green. "The truth is that Twitter is too big and they don't have the necessary staff and manpower to crack down on every single violation," Green said, noting that he fully supports Politwoops' service.

Meanwhile, Gabriela Schneider, communications director for the Sunlight Foundation said that the Open State Foundation version of this site has existed for a few years now and "hasn't been a problem, most likely due to its journalistic relevance."

"What we're trying to do," she said, "is capture statements made in a politician's official office, on their official accounts during work hours and keep them from being swept under the rug." The Sunlight Foundation has long advocated as well for Congressional use of Twitter to futher transparency and public access to consitutents.

The real question seems to be whether Twitter should amend their terms of service to allow for services like Politwoops, who champion transparency. Clearly, there appear to be some complexities with regard to just who owns a person's tweets.

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