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Facebook's First Government Requests Report: Over 25,000 Inquiries in Six Months

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, August 27 2013

On Tuesday, Facebook joined Google and Twitter in releasing its first Global Government Requests Report, providing an overview of the information requests it had received about Facebook users and to what it extent it fulfilled those requests. Worldwide, 71 countries made over 25,600 requests about more than 38,000 users.

The report covers the first six months of 2013 but Facebook says it plans to release these reports regularly in the future. Google first released its transparency report in September 2010, and Twitter first published its report in July 2012.

As reported by Tech President in January, Trevor Timm from the Electronic Frontier Foundation emphasized that the release of this information was key for informing the public and spurring advocacy for the reform of privacy laws, given the secrecy of the government.

Facebook's move also comes a few months after it joined the Global Network Initiative, a diverse group of companies, civil society organizations, investors and academics that brings technology companies together to address the challenges in maintaining freedom of expression and data privacy when responding to government information requests.

According to the report's FAQ, the "vast majority" of the requests relate to criminal cases, though some also cite national security reasons. Facebook notes that it must resort to publishing a range of requests, rather than a specific number as with all other countries, because it has not yet received legal authorization to do so. Facebook says it will continue to push the U.S. government for more transparency so that it may publish exact numbers in the future.

The United States saw the highest number of requests and accounts affected: between 11,000 and 12,000 requests affecting between 20,000 and 21,000 accounts with 79 percent of those requests fulfilled. India saw the second highest, at 3,245 requests for 4,144 accounts with 50 percent of those requests answered.

Facebook also had comparatively high requests -- in the thousands -- for several European countries: the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany.

While for some, the numbers might seem high, Facebook emphasizes that it requires governments to satisfy a "very high legal bar" in order to receive any information on its users.

"We scrutinize each request for legal sufficiency under our terms and the strict letter of the law, and require a detailed description of the legal and factual bases for each request," the report says. "We fight many of these requests, pushing back when we find legal deficiencies and narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests. When we are required to comply with a particular request, we frequently share only basic user information, such as [a] name."

From July to December 2012, Google responded to 88 percent of 8,438 U.S. law enforcement requests that affected 14,791 accounts with some data. From January to June 2013, Twitter had responded in some form to 67 percent of 902 requests affecting 1,319 accounts.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) welcomed Facebook's new report and praised its efforts in putting pressure on the U.S. government to release specific numbers, but noted that the Obama administration could do more.

"It's disappointing that Facebook is still prohibited by law from disclosing specific information about the number of foreign intelligence and national security-related data demands it receives from the U.S. government," said CDT Free Expression Director Kevin Bankston in a statement. "We would strongly prefer that Facebook report specific numbers about the different types of government requests that they receive, and we hope that the Obama Administration and Congress will work together to ensure that companies like Facebook can soon engage in meaningful transparency reporting about the full range of government surveillance of Internet users."

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