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Twitter rejects compromise on secret government orders

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Twitter TWTR NYSE Stock Exchange (STOCK)
Twitter TWTR NYSE Stock Exchange (STOCK)

Twitter's latest transparency report is out, and the company seems furious about what it can't reveal. While Google, Facebook, and others have reached a deal with the US government to break out national security requests in broad numbers, but Twitter wasn't one of the companies involved, and it says such numbers aren't useful for its purposes. "Allowing Twitter, or any other similarly situated company, to only disclose national security requests within an overly broad range seriously undermines the objective of transparency," writes policy manager Jeremy Kessel, though he says the compromise is a step in the right direction.

The company echoed a common refrain: by placing overly strict limits on talking about national security, the government is preventing it from reassuring users about how little information it's actually asked to give up. Kessel said that Twitter should be able to not only disclose how many accounts it receives but also tell users that it hasn't received certain types of requests. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, and LinkedIn have all settled their complaints with the government, but Kessel says Twitter is still pushing for more transparency. If the Department of Justice doesn't respond, it may go to court, arguing that NSA and FBI gag orders are a violation of its First Amendment rights. This tack has been taken in other cases, but so far, it's been largely unsuccessful.

The US still tops the list for information requests

The information Twitter has published in its report, which covers the second half of 2013, shows an increase in overall government requests for account information worldwide. In its first transparency report, covering the first half of 2012, Twitter noted 849 total requests. By the first half of 2013, that number had risen to 1,157, and now it sits at 1,410. Most online services have seen steady increases in requests, although some of that is likely due to an overall increase in accounts. The majority of requests in late 2013 — 833 — came from the US; about 70 percent of those requests were honored by Twitter. As Twitter notes, though, these numbers don't include classified national security requests.

Saudi Arabia, which made 110 orders, and Japan, which made 213, were the only other countries to break the hundred-request mark, and most of those weren't actually honored. These numbers don't necessarily reflect how many accounts were specified, since multiple requests can be made on one account and multiple accounts can be specified in one request. By that metric, though, US and Japan still topped the list.

Requests to remove illegal content like libel or other prohibited speech jumped massively in late 2013, but that's due almost entirely to one country: France. A series of racist and anti-Semitic tweets sparked a minor firestorm in mid-2013, and Twitter received 306 takedown requests from the government, ultimately removing 133 tweets. France also asked for the third-highest number of account disclosures, and Twitter ended up providing information on about a quarter of the 102 specified accounts after a lengthy court battle.