Government requests for Facebook user account data up 9% in second half of 2016, but content restrictions declined

Facebook today released its latest report on global government requests for the second half of 2016, noting there has been a 9 percent increase in requests for user account data compared with the earlier part of that year, but a 28 percent decrease in content restrictions for violating local law. However, that latter decrease doesn’t necessarily indicate that content restriction-related requests are dropping as a trend, but rather that earlier reporting had been impacted by unusually inflated figures. This was due to a sizable number of requests related to a single image from the terror attack in Paris in 2015.

As the social network explained in December when reporting data for the first half of 2016, this category of government requests had seen a sharp increase due to the posting of an image from the Bataclan attack in Paris on November 13, 2015. Facebook today says that its prior two reports were affected by the number of requests from the country to take a particular photo down.

The photo in question is detailed on the Government Requests FAQ page, where Facebook states that a division of French law enforcement, L’Office Central de Lutte Contre la Criminalité Liée aux Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication (OCLCTIC), asked Facebook to remove an image taken inside the Bataclan concert venue depicting the remains of several victims. According to French laws, the image was in violation of laws related to protecting human dignity.

Facebook says it restricted access to that photo in 32,100 instances in France, but didn’t remove it in other countries because it found the image was not in violation of its Community Standards as it was being used to denounce the attack or show compassion towards the victims.

The company today says that content restriction requests declined from 9,663 in the first half of 2016 to 6,944 in the second half.

Meanwhile, requests for user account data went up from 59,229 to 64,279 (9%) during that same period. It’s worth noting that around half the U.S. law enforcement requests included a non-disclosure agreement that prohibited Facebook from notifying its users of the government’s action. It made special mention of this, as search warrants are an issue the company is actively fighting.

The company said it received an update on a U.S. court case where it was attempting to protect Facebook users from overreaching search warrants. The New York court said Facebook had raised “novel and important substantive issues,” but declined to review the case further, backing up the lower court’s denial of the challenge and calling it “nonappealable.”

This is an issue that affects more than just Facebook. As Reuters reported at the time of the ruling, the decision was a significant defeat for not only Facebook, but also internet privacy advocates including the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter that supported Facebook’s appeal.

Facebook says it’s now working to support legislation that would allow providers like it to formally contest these “defective search warrants.”

Facebook today for the first time also shared information about “internet disruptions” that impacted access to Facebook’s products and services, saying these “harm local economies and prevent people from sharing and communicating with their family and friends.”

However, in the downloadable report available now on the Facebook Government Requests website, these are not broken out in a separate column.

We reached out to Facebook for clarification on this, and the company explained that it’s putting these requests on each country’s page instead of tallying them in the main report. That means you’ll have to click on the country, then check to view if there were service disruptions. If there were not, this information won’t be listed.

You can see an example of this figure here on Ethiopia’s page.

Facebook lists the number of internet disruptions and also provides a brief statement noting when the disruptions took place and what caused them. For instance, on Ethiopia’s page, it says disruptions “coincided with protests or student exams.”

In the current report, Facebook says there are 20 countries where these metrics are detailed.

Image credit: GongTo / Shutterstock

Updated 1: 55 PM ET to include details on where service disruptions are made available, and what information they offer.