Governments and tech companies share a close-knit secret. Over the past few months we have seen how the tech companies have been secretly providing information about users’ personal data and even getting paid millions of dollars to cover the costs of the NSA surveillance. All thanks to our whistleblower Edward Snowden and impressive reporting by Guardian who have made us believe that online privacy is a joke in the so called shrinking world being made possible by digital innovations. So after being caught red handed, it became imperative for tech giants to become more open and transparent. Facebook did the same in order to save its left over reputation.
After Twitter and Google, Facebook recently shared its first Transparency report which gives details of the activities performed in the first half of 2013 (Jan to June). Facebook states that government agents in 74 countries demanded information on about 38,000 Facebook users in the first half of this year, with about half the orders coming from authorities in the United States. However, I think that it wasn’t an impressive transparency report from a company that has more than 1.15 billion total users, according to its Q2 earnings revelations.
Findings of the first transparency report
According to the Global Government Requests Report, the report focussed on four major parameters:
1. Which countries requested information from Facebook about our users.
2. The number of requests received from each of those countries.
3. The number of users/user accounts specified in those requests.
4. The percentage of these requests in which we were required by law to disclose at least some data.
US leads at the top with 12,000 requests made followed ably by India with more than 3000 requests. UK with 1,975 requests, Germany with 1,886 requests and Italy with 1,705 requests follow US and India in making data requests from Facebook in H1 2013. When it comes to users or accounts requested, again the US led from the front with 21,000 requests and India made more than 4000 requests in the same period.
In the report, Facebook states that it has stringent processes in place to handle all government data requests and in H1 2013 it addressed only 79% of the request of US and 50% of India. Facebook also informed that when it decides to meet the demands of governments then only basic info like the name of the account holder is shared.
Why it is not an impressive transparency report?
I just couldn’t swallow the fact that Facebook is just sharing basic info like the name of the account holder. I think Facebook needs to open up a bit here in its forthcoming reports. The world cannot be fooled anymore.
There have been many instances reported in India where it has more than 82 million users that Facebook pages have been brought down or accounts have been blocked. There is no trace of any such information in the transparency report. What would make this report meaningful is when it provides the number of Facebook pages pulled down, accounts blocked, etc., if not exact instances. I am sure that Governments are not interested to know the names of the account holders in an Internet age which feeds on anonymity. Moreover the report lacks depth and leaves the reader with no major insights other than numbers that don’t make much sense.
Lessons to learn from Twitter and Google transparency reports
Twitter, which first published its bi-annual Twitter Transparency Report on July 2, 2012 has been far more transparent than Facebook. It recently revealed the H1 2013 report that highlights government requests that Twitter received for account information, government requests received for content removal, and copyright notices (both take down notices and counter notices). The report also provides details on whether or not Twitter took action on these requests.
Detailing the Indian Government’s request Twitter stated that the government made less than 10 requests but there was no information produced by the 140 character social network. Additionally, India had one removal request from court, one from administration such as Govt or police during H1 2013. In response Twitter withheld 50% of some or all content which resulted in holding 3 tweets. To know more detailed findings about other countries, you can find it all here.
Google in its transparency report also goes ahead and breaks them according to the requests made by governments. It provides a detailed snap shot of all requests based on – 1. By Reporting Period which is further sub-divided into Court order and Police, etc. and 2. By Reason which gives you a percentage of request based on factors like Defamation, Copyright, Adult Content, Hate Speech, etc. If this was not enough then Google also provides details of Product Breakdown and Reason Breakdown. One can find all the details grouped under different countries.
Facebook promises to makes such reports more often and I can only wish that it becomes open and transparent in providing more detailed figures like it does during its quarterly earnings report. Twitter and Google reports will be a great help for Facebook to refer to.
Apart from Twitter, every other tech giant has helped the US government to snoop into user accounts in the name of national interest. Snooping is done by every government to safeguard interests of a civil society and I understand that. However, in such situations being more open with its users is the way forward.
Image courtesy: Yahoo