Twitter’s Takedown of Politwoops Exemplifies Risks Of Participation In API Economy

Twitter confirmed that it has blocked Twitter API access to the online watchdog Politwoops (a Sunlight Foundation-backed website). Twitter stated developer agreement violations as the catalyst for the ban, highlighting the importance of deep ToS understanding and compliance. Something that can be difficult, since API Providers can change their Terms of Service at any moment. Since 2012, Politwoops tracked the tweets deleted from politicians' Twitter accounts. New tweet data came to a halt last month, and Twitter has now affirmed that Politwoops' API access was removed and provided a statement to Gawker:

"Earlier today we spoke to the Sunlight Foundation, to tell them we will not restore Twitter API access for their Politwoops site. We strongly support Sunlight's mission of increasing transparency in politics and using civic tech and open data to hold government accountable to constituents, but preserving deleted Tweets violates our developer agreement. Honoring the expectation of user privacy for all accounts is a priority for us, whether the user is anonymous or a member of Congress."

This is not the first time Twitter has pulled API access from the developer community. Twitter, like a slew of other companies (e.g. ESPN, LinkedIn, Netflix), has started to keep tighter reins on access to its APIs. Often, API access battles remain between two tech companies and the technical details of any controversy often overshadow any public policy or social issues. However, the Politwoops move may be a different story. Simply put, until last month, we could see when politicians rushed to delete tweets. Now we can't. The Sunlight Foundation quickly went to bat against Twitter's decision:

"We are truly mystified as to what prompted the change of heart, and it's deeply disappointing to see Twitter kill a project they had supported since 2012," Christoper Gates, Sunlight Foundation President, wrote on a blog post. "It is also disturbing to us that our feed was cut almost three weeks ago and our only direct communication came from Twitter last night, when we were told that their decision was not something that we could appeal, and, most surprisingly, they were not interested in reviewing any of the email conversation from 2012. Clearly, something changed - and we're not likely to ever know what it was."

Twitter's decision to block Politwoops presents an interesting point of contention as APIs continue to expand in use and application. When API owners first launch a new API, or API feature, we often hear comments that encourage boundless use of an API: "We can't wait to see how the developer community surprises us with their creativity," or "the use case scenarios for our API are seemingly endless." Such comments insinuate that uncapped use is fully positive. However, what happens when an API consumer utilizes an API to fulfill a purpose contrary to the owners' values, goals, or intentions? The Twitter/Politwoops showdown may give us some insight to this very dilemma. Stay tuned.

Be sure to read the next Politics article: Twitter Restores Politwoops API Access Signaling Win for Devs