Twitter ‘Considering Legal Options To Defend First Amendment Rights’ As Data Requests Rise 22%

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Twitter today has published its latest Transparency Report, a list of information and takedown requests, as well as copyright notices. The report breaks out for the first time how Twitter is faring on a country-by-country basis — useful considering that these days some 75% of its users are outside the U.S. — and indicates that information requests are up by 66% in the last two years.

But Twitter is also using the release to drive home a point it’s been making for some time now: current rules do not allow Twitter to be as transparent as it would like to be.

Twitter says that it is weighing up taking its fight for more disclosure to the courts. “We are considering legal options we may have to seek to defend our First Amendment rights,” Jeremy Kessel, Manager, Global Legal Policy, writes in a blog post introducing the new Transparency Report.  It comes on the heels of Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft last week revealing data about its own NSA information requests.

The importance of more transparency is two-fold for Twitter. First, the company has been a strong defender of freedom of speech and how it might apply to user-created content on its platform. In certain scenarios, where instances of bullying have been exposed, it’s been hands-off almost to a fault. So there is a matter of principle for the company here.

Second, there is an issue of trust here. Allowing a users’ account information and content to be accessed and potentially used by third parties, and not be disclosed to other users, is a slippery slope that undermines Twitter’s relationship with users. Yesterday’s quarterly earnings (Twitter’s first as a public company) pointed to how the company has to pick up the pace with user growth (something the market continues to punish it for today); backdoor tactics by others certainly will do nothing to help that proposition.

Twitter would not be the first to get legal: Yahoo is among those who have been outspoken on this point. Some might argue that this has played a part in the agreement reached between the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the five larger internet companies over how to disclose in aggregate information about FISA orders).

While there have definitely been some moves made by the U.S. Department of Justice to allow for more disclosure on government requests, it doesn’t go far enough to be relevant to companies like Twitter, the company believes.

“These ranges do not provide meaningful or sufficient transparency for the public, especially for entities that do not receive a significant number of – or any – national security requests,” Kessel writes. “For the disclosure of national security requests to be meaningful to our users, it must be within a range that provides sufficient precision to be meaningful. 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. In addition, we also want the freedom to disclose that we do not receive certain types of requests, if, in fact, we have not received any.”

In the transparency report (which you can see for yourself here), it’s important to note that the topline number showing that information requests have risen by 66% is still from a relatively small base. It works out to some 6,500 accounts impacted — “~.0028% of 230M active users” notes Kessel. In the last six months, requests have risen by 22%, the company notes.

The U.S. still accounts for the majority of requests (59% in the last six months ending December 2013. Outside of the U.S. — which saw 833 account information requests (covering 1,323 accounts), — Japan topped the list with 213 account information requests covering 253 accounts. It was followed by France (57; 102), which has been making some overtures to start requesting even more control beyond data access.

Indeed, when it comes to removal requests, France jumps to the very top by a large stretch. While most other countries have seen none or just one or two removal requests, France has seen 306 removal requests from government agencies and the police; three from court orders; covering 146 accounts (although none subsequently withheld) and 133 specific Tweets withheld. A large part of the story in France centers around groups that have been able to obtain Tweet and account orders by way of current French discrimination laws.

In all, Twitter says that it had in the last six months five times as many content removal requests as it did in the six months before. After France, Russia, Brazil and the UK followed in number.