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Twitter sues US Govt for right to report user information requests data in greater detail

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Twitter has filed a lawsuit (pdf) against the United States government in a bid to overturn the current prohibitions to publishing the number and type of government requests the microblogging site receives for user information in greater detail. Earlier this year, as part of its 5th Transparency Report, Twitter had mentioned that they were being prohibited from disclosing national security requests, including national security letters (NSLs) and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court orders, even if the number is 0.

In the lawsuit, Twitter alleges that the United States Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are violating the company’s First Amendment rights by not allowing it to publish the Transparency Report in its entirety. The lawsuit also asks the court to declare such restrictions unconstitutional. In its complaint, Twitter also states that it wants to report data in such a way that reflects the comparatively limited amount of U.S. government surveillance of Twitter accounts. This is because most tweets are public, unlike say large email service providers like Google and Yahoo, or a semi-private social network like Facebook.

It’s worth noting that in February this year the DoJ and some of the leading companies in the digital media space, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and LinkedIn (but not Twitter) reached an agreement (pdf) regarding reporting of data about government requests for customer information in extremely large ranges (0-999 for example), which Twitter says doesn’t provide meaningful or sufficient transparency to the public. (See images below) In fact, Twitter had met with officials from the DoJ and the FBI right after this agreement to discuss the scope of its Transparency report. It wanted to report data in smaller ranges like 1-99, but received a negative response.

Government Request Data Option 2

Government Request Data Option 1

Transparency report numbers: Twitter’s latest Transparency report had revealed that global requests for account information, content removal, and copyright takedowns have been on a steady rise. In the first half of 2014 (January-June) requests for account information went up by 46%, content removal requests increased by 14% and copyright takedown requests for Twitter and Vine content went up by 38%.

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Surprisingly, the numbers for India have been on a decline. Twitter received lower number of user information requests and content removal requests in the first half of 2014 than the second half of 2013. This is especially surprising given that during this period a fiercely contested Lok Sabha election was held in the country, which was debated and analyzed extensively on Twitter.

In the post-Edward Snowden age, most major tech companies are coming under increased pressure from consumers to be more transparent about their dealings with governments regarding surveillance. It’ll be interesting to see if the DoJ and the FBI do budge from their established position on government surveillance.

Also Read: Govt surveillance agencies acting beyond mandate under cloak of national security: SFLC Report

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