President Obama on the campaign trail with Mark Zuckerberg in 2011, via Obama's Flickr
Facebook released its first-ever government data requests report, and as we've come to expect, the United States leads the rest of the world (by at least an order of magnitude) in requesting and receiving user data. But despite Facebook's fairly thin release of data, what's shocking is just how much the US government has gleaned from the web's largest social network.
In the first six months of 2013, the government made a whopping 11,000-12,000 requests encompassing 20,000-21,000 accounts, according to the report. In 79 percent of those queries, Facebook says at least some data was produced.
Compared to Twitter, which released its third semi-annual transparency report a few weeks ago, Facebook is far more productive for the government. During the same period, Twitter received 902 government requests encompassing 1,319 user accounts, and produced at least some data 67 percent of the time.
The disparity is largely due to the differences in the network's scales; Facebook says it has 1.15 billion monthly unique visitors, while Twitter claims 200 million. But the government's higher success rate at receiving Facebook data is notable.
According to Facebook, the report includes every worldwide report for user data it received during the first half of the year, and lumps together both criminal and national security requests, as does Twitter. Curiously, the United States' request data were the only lumped in ranges, which Facebook blamed on the government's refusal to allow the company to disclose more:
We have reported the numbers for all criminal and national security requests to the maximum extent permitted by law. We continue to push the United States government to allow more transparency regarding these requests, including specific numbers and types of national security-related requests. We will publish updated information for the United States as soon as we obtain legal authorization to do so.
That Facebook says it's fighting the government for more transparency is notable. While criminal requests likely make up a large portion of US government data requests—social media is a regular asset to police now, of course—this year's NSA scandal has put far more pressure on major tech companies to disclose exactly how the government is using their services.
They've so far not been allowed by the government to disclose much, although Facebook did release government request data for the last six months of 2012, which ranged from 9,000-10,000 requests encompassing 18,000-19,000 accounts, although it can't disclose more than that. (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Apple all reported similar numbers of requests, with thousands of accounts implicated at each.)
Those firms have all repeatedly said they've done nothing illegal in dealing with the government, and that's quite possibly true. We don't know for sure, as those dealings remain classified, but if Facebook or Twitter is handed a court order to hand over data, there's not much it can do. Facebook has clearly-stated law enforcement guidelines for what it can and can't hand over, and aside from rejecting requests that don't fit that legal basis, no company is going to fight individual legal battles for thousands of user requests.
What's frustrating then is that Facebook is legally barred from being more transparent about how those requests are received and used, which would at least allow users to defend themselves in a smarter fashion.
Curiously, while the US made 78 percent of total worldwide requests for Twitter data, the spread is more even on Facebook. India made 3,245 requests for data on a total of 4,144 accounts, although only half of them were accepted. France, Germany, Italy, and the UK all had requests totaling in the thousands, although their success rates were lower than the US—France and Germany didn't even top 40 percent.
Still, in total requests and in success rate, the United States leads the world in accessing user data on social networks. That effect is fueled by laws that allow authorities to compel tech firms to hand over user data without privacy or transparency protections. It's a legal situation that's fairly unique to the US, and one that's projected to cost US tech firms tens of billions of dollars.
Facebook is trying to counter the chilling effect of spying revelations with its efforts at transparency, which is a good thing for users too. People are less likely to use Facebook if they don't know the extent of the government's access; more importantly, without data people will be less likely to call for change. And while Facebook's data release doesn't do much to clear up just how the government is accessing Facebook pages and why, it's a baby step in the right direction.