April 20, 2011 | By Marcia Hofmann

"Who Has Your Back?" In Depth: Which Companies Promise To Tell Users About Government Data Requests?

EFF recently launched a campaign calling on companies to stand with their users when the government comes looking for data. (If you haven’t done so, sign our petition urging companies to provide better transparency and privacy.) This article will provide a more detailed look at one of the four categories in which a company can earn a gold star in our campaign: promising to tell users about government data demands.

This category requires a company to make an enforceable promise to let users know when the government comes knocking, unless giving notice is prohibited by law or a court order. This commitment is important because it gives users a chance to defend themselves against government requests. In most situations, a user is in a better position than a company to challenge a government request for personal information, and of course, she has more incentive to do so.

Promising to give notice should be an easy commitment to make — the company doesn't have to take a side, it merely has to pass on important information to the user. And companies don't have to give notice if the law or a court order prevents it. Ideally, we think companies should make this promise in their terms of service and privacy policies, although none of the companies on our chart currently does that.

We gave Twitter a full gold star in this category. While Twitter doesn't promise to notify users about government requests in its terms of service or privacy policy, the company does say in its law enforcement guidelines that "Twitter's policy is to notify users of requests for their information prior to disclosure unless we are prohibited from doing so by statute or court order." Twitter went even further earlier this year when it pushed back against a Department of Justice gag order so that it could inform several users that their data had been sought in the Wikileaks investigation.

We also gave Google half of a gold star. Like Twitter, the company doesn't promise to notify users about data requests in its terms of service or privacy policy, but according to a blog post by Google's Chief Legal Officer David Drummond, "Whenever we can, we notify users about requests that may affect them personally." This is good, but it doesn't get a full star because it falls short of a full promise.

Other prominent Internet companies — including Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Comcast, Facebook, Microsoft, Myspace, Skype, Verizon, and Yahoo — can do more to give you the chance to defend your privacy against government overreach. Sign the petition to tell these companies to join Twitter and Google in making this important public commitment to their users, and to add the promise to their official policies. And if your company officially makes this promise to users but you're not on our list, let us know!


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