Twitter releases gov’t request information, fights for less secrecy

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Well… Twitter’s not shy. The social media company released its latest transparency report showing the information, removal and copyright requests it received in the last six months of 2013 — accompanied by a not-so-subtle blog post saying that the US government should remove restrictions on how much it is allowed to share.

In the post, global legal policy manager Jeremy Kessel complained about the limitations on how companies like Twitter can report back on how authorities ask them for information on their users. He said the limitation “not only unfairly impacts our users’ privacy, but also violates our First Amendment right to free expression and open discussion of government affairs”.

Last week, the US Department of Justice and various communications providers reached an agreement allowing disclosure of national security requests in very large ranges. While this agreement is a step in the right direction, these ranges do not provide meaningful or sufficient transparency for the public, especially for entities that do not receive a significant number of — or any — national security requests.

As previously noted, we think it is essential for companies to be able to disclose numbers of national security requests of all kinds — including national security letters and different types of FISA court orders — separately from reporting on all other requests. For the disclosure of national security requests to be meaningful to our users, it must be within a range that provides sufficient precision to be meaningful. Allowing Twitter, or any other similarly situated company, to only disclose national security requests within an overly broad range seriously undermines the objective of transparency.

Kessel also pointed out that companies like Twitter should be able to disclose if they haven’t received certain types of requests, and not be confined to such broad categories. Over the last two years, the company has seen a 66% increase in requests for account information from more than 45 countries around the world, including France, India, the UK, Japan and of course, the US.

Although the number of requests has gone up, they only affect a fraction of all Twitter’s users — just 6 400 accounts, which works out to less than 0.003% of its 230-million active users. The number of requests doesn’t include those which concern national security, which Twitter is not allowed to report on. Almost two-thirds of all information requests emanate from the US government.

Twitter has also seen a massive spike in removal requests, where it is asked to take down content that is seen as illegal in certain countries it operates in. For example, from June to December last year, it received more than 300 requests from an organisation in France asking it to take down discriminatory content, while Brazilian authorities issued Twitter with a court order to remove defamatory tweets. It was also asked to delete content that fell foul of Russia’s controversial internet restriction law, which aims to censor content which is pornographic, extremist, or promotes the use of drugs.

The majority of take down requests Twitter receives are actually related to copyright infringement — it received 6 680 copyright claims from June to December last year, compared with 1 410 information requests and 365 content removal requests.

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