January 29, 2013 | By Trevor Timm

Twitter’s New Transparency Report Shows Increase in Government Demands, Sheds Light on Copyright Takedowns

Yesterday, Twitter released its second semi-annual transparency report, which details the numbers behind every user data demand, censorship order and copyright takedown request that the micro-blogging site received in the second half of 2012.

As with Google’s transparency report last week, there was a clear increase in government demands for user data, with the United States leading the way by far. Censorship requests from around the world also increased. In addition, the report shed valuable light on the copyright takedown procedure that also often results in undue censorship.

With their respective reports, Twitter and Google are leaders in a positive new trend of sharing information that sheds new light on just how government surveillance and censorship works. It should be a model for other companies, including Facebook, Skype, and cell phone carriers.

Let’s take a deeper look at the information Twitter provided:

Data Demands

Just like Google admirably did last week, Twitter not only gives us stats for how many requests for user data each country makes, but also breaks down what type of requests they receive from the United States government. Since Twitter now tells whether information was obtained by search warrant—which requires probable cause and a judge’s signature—or by subpoena—which has a much lower threshold and ordinarily no requirement for a specific sign off by the judge ahead of time—we can tell what kind of surveillance the government is attempting to conduct on users.

Unsurprisingly, the United States again far and away leads the pack when it comes to demands for user data, with a vast majority of the demands coming without a probable cause warrant.

To Twitter’s credit, those government requests have to meet a higher threshold than is set forth in the U.S.’s antiquated surveillance law. Twitter officially announced, just as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook have in recent days, that they apply Fourth Amendment protections to all email content, even though Congress has so far refused to enact legislative protections.

The warrantless surveillance requests cover “metadata,” like who users email, when, and from what location—information that is still highly sensitive and deserving of warrant protection.

Twitter also breaks down how many of those requests come with a gag order (over 20%), which prevents them from even letting users know they’ve been targeted. In every case possible, Twitter will notify the user of the demand. Given secret surveillance is on the rise in the US, again, this is important information for the public to have.

Censorship Orders

Removal demands to Twitter by governments around the world also increased sharply since six months ago. In the first half of 2012, there were six, while in the second half there were forty-two. Twitter complied with two of them—one in Germany and the other in France—after courts in those countries ruled they must take down the specified content. But Twitter also announced a policy earlier this year that Twitter would only block court-ordered content in the countries that made the ruling and would correspondingly post all censorship demands on the website Chilling Effects for the public to see.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the First Amendment generally bars government efforts to take down speech—even unlawful speech like defamation (such matters are normally dealt with by private lawsuits for money damages)—the US government requested two items be taken down. Twitter did not comply with either.

Copyright Takedown Requests

Finally, Twitter details how many copyright takedown notices it received under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and as a result, underscores how the DMCA can be wielded as a censorship tool. DMCA takedown notices require no official lawsuit or court action of any kind. Instead, copyright owners can independently notify online service providers and demand that material be taken down (for a minimum of 14 days) under threat of jeopardizing the providers’ immunity from liability.

Twitter had over 3000 requests for takedowns, yet they only complied with 53%. That means almost half of all requests were invalid. It is again to Twitter’s credit that they both publicized this data and have committed the legal resources necessary to protect their users from invalid legal requests. 

With no strict legal obligation to fight these requests, smaller companies, or those less dedicated to speech, might simply have complied with them, and First Amendment protected speech would have been unduly censored.

Here’s hoping Twitter’s transparency report soon becomes an industry standard.


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