Transparency Reports: Great for Publicity, Not So Great for Democracy

Posted by · July 6, 2012 3:42 pm

Earlier this week, Twitter followed Google’s lead by releasing the inaugural version of its new “Twitter Transparency Report” to the public.  The report focused specifically on user information requests, content removal requests, and copyright takedown notices submitted to the microblogging site by various national governments over the past six months. As evidenced by the chart below, some of the results were less than encouraging.

As the report reveals, nearly 80 percent of the disclosure requests came from the U.S. government.  That’s 679 of the 849 total requests made in the past six months alone. And out of those requests, Twitter elected to provide “some or all” of the information requested 75 percent of the time.

“We’ve received more government requests in the first half of 2012, as outlined in this initial dataset, than in the entirety of 2011,” observed Jeremy Kessel, Twitter’s manager of legal policy, posting on the Twitter blog. “Moving forward we’ll be publishing an updated version of this information twice a year.”

Meanwhile, the latest edition of the “Google Transparency Report,” which was released last month, reveals that this upward trend is hardly relegated to Twitter. According to the report, Google received more than 1,000 requests from governments looking to censor controversial material, including both court orders and informal requests. Of those requests, 457 came in the form of a court order, of which Google says it complied with 65 percent. More specifically, the report notes that the U.S. government accounted for 117 court orders and 70 informal requests to remove such material.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the past couple years has been troubling, and today is no different,” observed Google senior policy analyst, Dorothy Chou, writing on the company’s blog. “And just like every other time before, we’ve been asked to take down political speech. It’s alarming not only because free expression is at risk, but because come of these requests come from countries you might not suspect—Western democracies not typically associated with censorship.”

Here’s a video from Newsy highlighting other noteworthy details included in the Google report:

Noting the positive role Google played in inspiring Twitter to debut a transparency report of its own, some hope that this will result in enough pressure to compel data-rich Facebook to follow suit. The Huffington Post’s Bianca Bosker writes:

Twitter’s release also promises to put additional pressure on Facebook, itself brimming with personal information, to disclose its own cooperation (or lack thereof) with governments that request user data and ask for posts to be deleted. Facebook notes in its data use policy that the company “may access, preserve and share your information in response to a legal request (like a search warrant, court order or subpoena) if we have a good faith belief that the law requires us to do so.” Yet the world’s largest social networking site has yet to publicly quantify how frequently it’s asked to hand over or remove users’ details or content, and when it does so.

And unlike Twitter—which not only claims that it will “notify affected users of requests for their account info unless [it’s] prohibited by law,” but has even gone so far as to defend the privacy of that information in the courtroom—Facebook appears to make no such assurance. Nevertheless, it is not what Facebook isn’t doing or might do that’s the most important takeaway from these transparency reports.

Although it’s somewhat reassuring to know that every six months, Google and Twitter will provide us with a report showing us how many requests the government makes to obtain or censor our online activity and how often they comply with such requests, the real question is whether such reports ought to be necessary.

When a person yells into a microphone, the manufacturer doesn’t hold rights to the words that are spoken or the information that its sound system helped to amplify. While certain contexts, such as broadcast media or music recording, may provide us with situations in which words spoken (or sung) into a microphone may be claimed as property by entities other than the people who utter them, the same cannot be said of someone who simply uses a public address system to deliver a message to an audience.

Any such attempt by the manufacturer of that sound system would be considered laughable, at best. The individual who purchased that sound system did not become an employee or representative of that manufacturer by making that purchase. Therefore, when that person enjoys the benefits of that system, he or she owes nothing to that manufacturer, regardless of the degree of success or failure that the individual reaps by the use of that product.

In the same manner, it ought to be considered just as absurd for a company that produces what amounts to a digital public address system to be somehow entitled to proprietary rights over words and other forms of expression that are communicated by the consumers of their services. The fact that information must be stored on a social site’s servers in order to be communicated in a manner consistent with what it advertises hardly serves as reasonable justification for a change in ownership of that data. And the idea that a convoluted set of user terms and privacy policies implies that such a transaction took place is hardly a rational assumption.

Unless some form of compensation is rendered in exchange for these various forms of expression projected across these digital public address systems, users of social media are right to expect the words and ideas they communicate to remain their own and to be “heard” only by the specific audiences that they target.

Bearing that in mind, if sites like Google and Twitter are truly concerned about preserving free expression and remaining committed to transparency, it seems the most reasonable response is to simply stop exercising ownership over the expression that governments seek to censor.

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For more on the Twitter transparency report…