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Facebook Reports Surge in Government Demands for User Data

Facebook’s Global Government Requests Report was released on Wednesday, and it showed a tremendous surge in requests for user account data from governments around the world, topped by the government of the United States. The governments of Turkey and India were cited as the most aggressive in censoring Facebook pages.

“In a statement about the report, Facebook said that the number of government requests for account data was up 18% — from 35,051 requests in the second half of 2014 to 41,214 in the first half of 2015. In the same time period, the number of pieces of content restricted went up 112% — from 9,707 in the second half of 2014 to 20,568 in the first half of 2015,” InformationWeek reports.

“The US was highest on the list with the most aggregate requests for information of all countries (17,557, referencing 26,579 user accounts). Facebook said it was able to comply with some data in 79.85% of the requests,” InformationWeek continues.

India came in second place for requesting data with 5,515 requests, but it led the league in demanding the removal of Facebook content, with 15,155 items restricted. Reuters and Today’s Zaman say that is triple the amount of content India blocked in the second half of 2014, while the number of Facebook users in India rose from about 120 million to 190 million over the past year, making it Facebook’s second-largest market after the United States.

Mashable gives the silver medal for content blocking to Turkey, with 4,496 requests, while France gets the bronze with 295. This is the third year in a row India has topped the list of content blockers. Today’s Zaman notes that Germany and Britain were also active in requesting data and blocking content, such as the restrictions against Holocaust-denial material in Germany. Of course, those rankings would not take into account countries that block Facebook entirely.

India has blocked some fairly popular websites, such as Vimeo and Daily Motion, in what its government describes as an effort to block ISIS propaganda, and a large number of pornography sites. Mashable notes that many of those blocks have been rolled back later.

“We restricted access in India to content reported primarily by law enforcement agencies and the India Computer Emergency Response Team within the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology because it was anti-religious and hate speech that could cause unrest and disharmony within India,” Facebook explained.

InformationWeek notes that the United States filed zero content blocking requests, while China, surprisingly, had only five requests for content blocking and zero information requests. (That could be an indication that Beijing doesn’t need Facebook’s help to gather information on its citizens or block content it finds objectionable, or that it relies more heavily on domestic social media sites like Sina Weibo for this information.)

Of the 17,557 American government requests for data, 9,737 of them involved search warrants, and 5,375 were subpoenas for non-content information (i.e. data about the users.) 1,066 of them involved the disclosure of real-time information under court order. InformationWeek notes that data about Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requests must be delayed, so they are not included in this report, but Facebook says there were less than a thousand of them.

“As we have emphasized before, Facebook does not provide any government with ‘back doors’ or direct access to people’s data,” said Facebook Deputy General Counsel Chris Sonderby, in a blog post announcing the release of the Global Government Requests Report. “We scrutinize each request we receive for legal sufficiency, whether from an authority in the U.S., Europe, or elsewhere. If a request appears to be deficient or overly broad, we push back hard and will fight in court, if necessary.”

“Over the last two years, we’ve regularly published information about the nature and extent of the requests we receive,” Sonderby continued. “To protect people’s information, we will continue to apply a rigorous approach to every government request we receive. We’ll also keep working with partners in industry and civil society to push governments around the world to reform surveillance in a way that protects their citizens’ safety and security while respecting their rights and freedoms.”

Critics of companies that comply with government requests to release or restrict user data, especially those not covered by such formal instruments as search warrants and subpoenas, charge they are aiding and abetting censorship. The companies generally respond that if they do not comply with local laws, they will be censored 100 percent and blocked from operating in those countries. That would obviously be bad for their bottom line, but defenders of compliance also argue that it would ultimately be a net loss for the cause of free speech, depriving dissidents in restrictive companies of an enormously useful outlet for organizing and spreading their ideas.

It is said that some dissent is better than none, but critics argue that institutionalizing and legitimizing censorship and surveillance is causing them to spread. They will surely cite the swelling numbers in Facebook’s report as evidence for their argument.

On the other hand, terrorists find social media very useful, too. ISIS is particularly aggressive at using the Internet to recruit operatives and spread its toxic ideology. Most affidavits in recent U.S. terrorism busts feature a side trip into social media, where the authorities became aware of threatening activity, and often use informants or undercover agents to interact with suspects and identify their associates. The arrest of ISIS supporter Terrence J. McNeil in Akron, Ohio is the latest of many examples. Some of these cases would clearly have been very difficult to close without cooperation from companies like Facebook and Twitter. The surge in data requests from American law enforcement could be taken as an increased threat level and a welcome increase in the number of plots thwarted.

A question haunting free-speech advocates is whether companies like Facebook are powerful enough to make censorious nations like India and Turkey change their ways, by refusing to cooperate, even if that means their services would be banned. Would the governments in question blink during such a confrontation, fearing to deprive their citizens of such popular resources – or would they punish Facebook for defiance, costing it millions of dollars by locking it out of growing markets?

It does not seem as if that question will be put to the test any time soon. On the contrary, free countries – even the United States – are clearly growing more comfortable with restricting free speech and harvesting data about citizens and, judging by current campus controversies, the younger generation seems even more comfortable with such notions than their elders.

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