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Twitter says secret government requests affect 'millionths of one percent' of users

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Twitter has released its latest government transparency report today, noting a 40 percent worldwide increase in government information requests. But there's one thing it still can't list: secret orders from the NSA and other US intelligence agencies. While Google, Microsoft, and other companies accepted a compromise that lets them disclose these numbers in wide bands, Twitter opted out, saying that wide range "seriously undermines" transparency. Instead, it sued the government late last year, contending that the gag orders on intelligence requests like Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders and national security letters violated its First Amendment rights. And today, it published a heavily redacted two-page filing that outlines some interesting numbers nonetheless.

Twitter's lawsuit complains about 'nonsensical' gag order policies

Twitter's argument is a familiar one: the government's massive ranges imply that Twitter receives more secret information requests than actually exist. If NSLs and FISA orders are listed separately, it must be in "nonsensical" ranges of 0-999 for each six months; if combined, companies can use the smaller range of 0-249 (which means they can't actually say they haven't received orders, either.) In the letter, Twitter proposes smaller ranges, and it gives the precise numbers of FISA and NSL requests for the second half of 2013, all of which are redacted. What's not blacked out is a single, curious statistic. "These [redacted] requests affected a total of [redacted] users, out of approximately 240 million active user accounts. (That's just [redacted] millionths of one percent of our users.)"

One millionth of one percent of 240 million users is 2.4. We have no idea how many millionths Twitter is talking about, but it gives a sense of scale to the requests; it seems possible we're talking about single- or double-digit numbers of people affected. As Twitter notes, the content on its platform is almost entirely public, so we're likely talking about things like the metadata of an account, or private messages — it's probably not representative of the requests that a company like Gmail would receive, although almost every web company has claimed it receives very few secret orders.

Outside intelligence agencies, Twitter saw 1,622 information requests from the US government, covering 3,299 accounts; it complied with 80 percent of them. Turkey (356 requests), Japan (288), and the United Kingdom (116) followed it, although a far smaller portion of those were granted. Government demands to remove content were another story: Turkey led by far with 477 requests, Russia followed it up with 91, and most countries issued only a handful. The whole transparency report can be viewed as an interactive map on Twitter's site — just remember that right now, it's not a complete one.