Twitter’s New Transparency Report: Governments Still Want Your Data

All your Tweets belong to us… with a court order.

Twitter’s second transparency report reinforces what many already know: governments want online user data, and to yank select content from the Internet.

“It is vital for us (and other Internet services) to be transparent about government requests for user information and government requests to withhold content from the Internet,” Jeremy Kessel, Twitter’s manager of Legal Policy, wrote in a January 28 posting on the official Twitter Blog. “These growing inquiries can have a serious chilling effect on free expression—and real privacy implications.”

Twitter’s first two transparency reports cover the entirety of 2012, so there’s not a deep historical record to mine for insight. Nonetheless, that year’s worth of data shows all types of government inquiry—information requests, removal requests, and copyright notices—either on the increase or holding relatively steady.

Governments requested user information from Twitter some 1,009 times in the second half of 2012, up slightly from 849 requests in the first half of that year. Content-removal requests spiked from 6 in the first half of 2012 to 42 in the second. Meanwhile, copyright notices declined a bit, from 3378 in the first half of 2012 to 3268 in the second.

The United States was responsible for 815 of those 1,009 requests in the second half of the year. Japan came in second with 62 requests, followed by Brazil with 34.

Nearly 70 percent of those requests by the United States government resulted in “some or all information produced.” Those requests specified 1,145 user accounts. Some 60 percent of the requests were delivered via subpoena, while 19 percent came from search warrants, 11 percent by court order, and 10 percent “other.”

“Requests from law enforcement that do not fall in any of the above categories,” noted the Twitter report. “Examples include exigent emergency disclosure requests and other requests received for user information without valid legal process.” Around 20 percent of the requests were issued under seal, meaning that a court forbids Twitter from notifying the targeted user of the request. Another 24 percent of the requests resulted in “notice to affected users.”

But the United States didn’t top the list of countries making information-removal requests: that particular honor belonged to Brazil, which made 16 requests in the second half of 2012. The United Kingdom came in second with 4, followed by the United States and Canada tied with two requests each.

Twitter also saw hundreds of copyright notices filed every month in 2012. The service spent considerable effort removing Tweets “identified and subsequently removed in response to valid [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] takedown notices,” as well as profile photos, header photos, background images, and any sort of “Twitter-hosted media” that some party felt violated DMCA. However, Twitter was quick to note in the report that it doesn’t obey every takedown request—especially those either misfiled or else featuring incomplete information.

Twitter’s data-dump comes on the heels of Google’s latest transparency report, which indicated that governments had filed an increasing number of requests for user data with the search-engine giant in the second half of 2012. Since 2009, requests for Google user data “of all kinds” have risen 70 percent.

Google complies a significant amount of the time with those removal requests (a full country-by-country breakdown is available inside the Transparency Report), but it also refuses to take down content if the request isn’t specific enough, or if the government body in question has submitted an informal letter in place of an actual court order.


Image: Twitter