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    Twitter Obeys the Government More Than You Think

    Written by

    Adam Clark Estes

    Twitter just released its second-ever transparency report, and guess what? It's actually transparent. It's got all the goodies: 6,646 reports of copyright violations, 1,858 information requests from governments, and 48 demands from governments to remove content. Twitter not only puts the data on a new, easy-to-understand web page, but also offers options that let you drill into the data. There are bar graphs and hyperlinks and bullet points and alphabetized charts and helpful explanations about how it handles complaints and takedown requests.

    But more than anything, this new transparency report paints a portrait with data of just how committed Twitter is to the free flow of information and how cooperative it is with the governments that want to disrupt that flow. Long story short, Twitter cooperates with Big Brother more often than you might think. How often? According to the company's own internal data, Twitter surrendered at least some information to the United States government for 69 percent of requests between July 1, 2012 and December 31, 2012. Internationally, that rate of compliance drops to 57 percent, though Twitter gave up information to some countries, like Japan and Brazil, only in a handful of cases. 

    So what's going on in the United States? Isn't Twitter supposed to be the national free speech champion of social media? Well, it used to be, after earning worldwide respect for keeping tweets flowing during the 2009 protests in Iran and the Arab Spring that followed. But almost exactly a year ago, Twitter's instituted some new tools that allow it to withhold certain tweets from certain countries where they were declared illegal. Then, last October, Twitter developed another new tool that enabled it to block an entire account. So far they've only used it on some evil Neo-Nazis in France and Germany.

    In the United States, though, the methods of government intervention are much less pronounced. While Twitter hasn't blocked a single account in the U.S., it has been very cooperative with local authorities. It's largely a legal issue. As the latest transparency report points out, 60 percent of the U.S. information requests are related to subpoenas, while 19 percent are linked to search warrants and 11 percent to court orders. The other 10 percent apply to "Other" requests. And as Twitter is careful to point out in the transparency report, they're just following the rules, although those rules aren't always so strict. In the case of subpoenas, Twitter noted, requests "do not generally require a judge's sign-off and usually seek basic subscriber information, such as the email address associated with an account and IP logs."

    So Twitter is pretty cooperative with U.S. authorities. The company is, however, less cooperative than its competitors, a fact that digital rights experts say set it apart nevertheless. "I don't necessary blame Twitter for complying with valid subpoenas and warrants, since they are required to by law," Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told CNET. "It seems they have been vigilant in challenging unnecessarily broad legal requests. They only comply with 69 percent, while Google complied with 88 percent. And they've also written a detailed explanation of why they may not comply, and notify users whenever legally possible. The blame lies with the government for making so many warrantless requests and with Congress for not giving much of our electronic data more protection than just a subpoena."

    And even with its 88 percent compliance rate, Google's not even the worst company. Facebook has never released a transparency report and hasn't given any indication that they plan to in the near future. So Twitter can still crow loud, when they say that they're the great protectors of your social media data. In Twitter's own words, "All of our actions are in the interest of an open and safe Internet."

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