Twitter says government requests keep rising

More requests for user information in the first half of 2012 than in the entirety of 2011, predominantly from US.

Social Networking And Blogging Website Twitter
Twitter said it has received more government requests in first half of 2012 than the whole of 2011 [Getty]

Twitter said in its first transparency report that the number of government requests for user information or to block content is rising in 2012.

“We’ve received more government requests in the first half of 2012, as outlined in this initial dataset, than in the entirety of 2011,” Twitter’s legal policy manager Jeremy Kessel said in a blog post on Monday.

The overwhelming number of requests came from the United States, accounting for 679 of the 849 requests for user information.

In 75 per cent of the US cases, Twitter gave some or all information.

The largest per centage of the 100 million active Twitter users are located in the US. 

After the US was Japan with 98 cases and Britain and Canada with 11 each.

“One of our goals is to grow Twitter in a way that makes us proud,” Kessel said.

“This ideal informs many of our policies and guides us in making difficult decisions. One example is our longstanding policy to proactively notify users of requests for their account information unless we’re prohibited by law.”

Twitter said it received 3,378 “takedown” notices so far this year for copyright violations and removed 38 per cent of the requested tweets.

There were also six cases in which courts or governments requested removal of tweets.

None were in the United States, and none was removed, Twitter said.

The transparency report is modelled after a similar effort from Google.

In addition to the transparency report, Twitter said it was partnering with a company called Herdict, which “collects and disseminates real-time, crowdsourced information about internet filtering, denial of service attacks, and other blockages.”

“This new partnership aims to drive more traffic and exposure to Herdict, while also empowering the Web community at large to help keep an eye on whether users can access Twitter around the world,” Kessel said.

The two initiatives, he said “are an important part of keeping the Tweets flowing”, a refeerence to the January blog post that first announced the San Francisco-based company’s country specific censorship policy.

Alex Howard, a DC-based correspondent for Radar, a blog about emerging technologies, told Al Jazeera that “the transparency Twitter is providing to the world is setting an important example” for other companies.

This policy of making the censorship information available online shows “that the company is actually walking the walk after talking the talk”, said Howard.

Kirsty Hughes, CEO of the Index on Censorship, a London-based organisation promoting human rights and global freedom of expression, says they welcome the transparency report.

“Knowing how much governments are challenging free expression online is a vital first step to ensuring we keep the web as a free and open space”, Hughes said in an email to Al Jazeera.

‘Tweets are not private’

The news came the same day a New York judge ordered Twitter to turn over data from Malcolm Harris, an Occupy Wall Street protester arrested during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge in October.

Twitter had fought to dismiss a request from prosecutors seeking the tweets as evidence, arguing that they belonged to Harris under the company’s terms of service.

The case is being watched closely as a test of online freedom of speech.

Howard says the judicial review required for access to data to Harris’ account presents an important precedent.

“Law enforcement has woken up to the fact that there is a lot of information on Twitter that is pursuant to the cases they are trying to make” said Howard.

This interest by law enforcement in the information contained on Twitter should also draw some concern for journalists said Howard.

The judge said that the tweets are not private information and thus not subject to the constitutional guarantee of privacy.

“The communication you make in a direct message to a source may not be privileged. It’s important to remember that even with the first amendment, we don’t have rights to free speech on those networks in the same way we would in a public square” Howard told Al Jazeera.

Twitter said it was studying its next move.

“We are disappointed in the judge’s decision and are considering our options,” a statement from the San Francisco firm said.

“Twitter’s terms of service have long made it absolutely clear that its users ‘own’ their content. We continue to have a steadfast commitment to our users and their rights.”

Hughes said that though 679 takedown requests from the United States represent the clear majority, it’s important to take into account “the direct censorship used in China compared to the US and other countries that use a framework of legal and political requests”.

Howard said the 80 per cent of requests originiating from the United States show that the initial fears of China and the Middle East taking advantage of country-specific censorship are somewhat irrelevant.

“These countries have the technical ability to block access to Twitter based on what people may find offensive to their culture or religion”.

However, Nighat Dad, head of research and public policy at Bytes for All, Pakistan, said the United States’ approach to gaining access to information on the micro-blogging site, could encourage a “copy cat syndrome” both of neighbouring states and those that look to the US as a model.

Iyad el-Baghdadi, an author and Arab spring blogger based in Dubai, told Al Jazeera that since Twitter, like Google, will openly publish all government requests, users should expect that “a government that wishes to clamp down on free speech will try to spare themselves the embarrassment, and hence do so without approaching Twitter or Google”.

Instead, Baghdadi says governments trying to limit online speech would approach local Internet Service Providers, ISPs, or censor certain pages via their own proxies, rather than “approach Twitter and Google, who will tell the entire world about it”.

Using Pakistan, which blocked access to Twitter last month because the micro-blogging service refused to remove material considered offensive to Islam,  as an example, Dad told Al Jazeera that “interpretations of vague legal terms like national security, obscenity, anti state, anti army, immoral, objectionable content are the biggest threat to freedom of expression online and these terms are heavily incorporated in our laws”.

Looking south, Howard said it is equally as important to watch developments in neighbouring India.

Though the world’s largest democracy sent fewer than 10 requests for Twitter user data, Howard says officials in Delhi “have expressed interest in access to servers transmitting Blackberry information as well as blocking certain parts of Facebook”.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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