Twitter has recently removed the ability of a political watchdog group to archive the embarrassing and incriminating tweets of U.S. congressmen automatically. The Sunlight Foundation’s much-beloved “politwoops” website was famous for revealing the regrettable tweets that members of Congress tried to erase from the history books.
The impact of Twitter’s decision is hard to overstate, considering former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s recent ejection from American politics after he accidentally tweeted lewd sexts to young women. Many journalists, including the Washington Post’s Philip Bump, are outraged.
Twitter argues that Sunlight’s automatic archiving of deleted tweets violates the company’s terms of service, which it has put in place to protect users’ privacy. Users, Twitter believes, should be able to erase their embarrassing information from the Internet.
Twitter’s argument is eerily close to Europe’s much-maligned “right to be forgotten” law, which allows some citizens to remove search results from Google that they find reflects negatively on their reputation.
The problem with “right to be forgotten” rules is that one user’s privacy is inextricably linked to another citizen’s free speech. In Europe, for example, Mario Costeja González leveraged the law to force Google to remove a newspaper article mentioning an embarrassing legal case about his home’s repossession.
In Twitter’s case, making it easier for politicians to erase tweets interferes with the Sunlight Foundation’s ability to publish what they feel is vital information for US voters. As of today, the once widely-followed politwoops media stream has run dry.
To be sure, there are important differences between a private company – Twitter –and a European government entity engaging in right-to-be-forgotten-style censorship. It is perhaps worse when a powerful government entity uses the force of law to make information harder to find.
But multi-billion dollar Internet companies have become essential sources of communication. Many U.S. politicians, including the President of the United States, now regularly bypass media outlets to post things directly to voters on Twitter or Facebook. Internet giants now own –and control– essential and widespread channels of information vital to a functioning democracy.
Philosophically, there is little difference between Europe removing search results of an embarrassing news article and Twitter yanking the ability of Sunlight to publish politicians’ regrettable tweets. Both assume that the right of a single person to make information harder to find is more valuable than citizens’ ability to know it.
Many feared that Europe’s “right to be forgotten laws” could creep beyond the EU’s own borders. Twitter, evidently, has just brought this 21st-century version of soft censorship to America–voluntarily.
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