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Twitter Teeters Between Informed Users and Government Censors



Twitter transparency tweetRunning a giant social media company is tough. You’re responsible for keeping a member’s secrets secret but you also have to respond when the government and law enforcement come knocking. In order to satisfy both sides, companies comply with legal requests but then disclose these requests in broad terms to users. They call it transparency but it’s more like a foggy window pane and the fog is getting thicker.

Both Facebook and Twitter released their latest transparency reports this week but as far as US data goes, they’re not very informative. And this comes on the heels of an agreement by the US Justice Department that allows social media sites to disclose “more” information. They can now report the number of National Security Letters (NSLs) and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) separately but only in groupings of 1,000.

100 requests = 0-999

4,532 requests = 4,000-4,999

Thus Facebook’s latest transparency report looks like this:

Facebook transparency report 2014

Facebook also calls this a “significant step forward.”

Twitter has a lot more to say on the subject.

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. In addition, we also want the freedom to disclose that we do not receive certain types of requests, if, in fact, we have not received any.

On the one hand we have free speech and privacy – on the other public safety and law enforcement. I lean toward the public safety side but I don’t see how either side is harmed by a more accurate accounting. How is 525 requests more of a concern than 0-999 requests? It’s still just a broad number. It’s not like some law breaker is going to see 525 and say, “Oh no! That’s me. I better cover my tracks.”

As far as I’m concerned, the significant number here is the percentage of growth.

Over the past 24 months, we’ve received a 66% increase in requests for account information coming from more than 45 different countries impacting over 6,400 accounts (~.0028% of 230M active users) around the world.

Some of this could be due to the fact that Twitter is becoming more popular around the world, but 59% of account information requests are coming from the US. Japan had the second highest total of information requests. Overall, Twitter provided some information in only 50% of the total requests.

Twitter’s new report also includes information about Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices. Between July 1 and Dec 31 of 2013, they received 6,680 requests. That’s an increase of 16% over the prior period. In 62% of the cases, materials were removed. That’s 26,506 Tweets, 5,847 media removals between Twitter and Vine. That’s a full-time job for someone.

Like I said, running a social media site ain’t easy.

To see Twitter’s full Transparency report (minus U.S. national security requests) click here.