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Twitter warns of “serious chilling effect on free expression” posed by governments

The increasing number of governments’ requests for users’ data is severely affecting free speech, Twitter warned today. And European governments are the most active in requesting access to or removal of users’ tweets, according to the data released by Twitter today.

Twitter says that it has seen a dramatic increase in government’s requesting data about users and that these are having “a serious chilling effect on free expression –  [with] real privacy implications.”

Marking 2013′s #DataPrivacyDay Twitter released its second Transparency Report, which shows the number and types of requests from world governments to have access to Twitter users’ data (Read Twitter’s mid-2012 Transparency Report here).

The report comes just five days after Google released its latest Transparency Report which shows a similar increase in requests from international governments.

According to Twitter’s data, European governments and judicial services are some of the most active in the world in requesting access to or removal of users’ information.

In total Twitter says that 11 international governments asked for users’ data to be removed from the company’s servers. Of these, the majority were made by European Union member states, including the UK, France, Germany, and Spain.  France was the only country to successfully have users’ data “withheld” and Germany was the only country that was successful in having an account “withheld.”

Withholding is the process where Twitter prevents users’ tweets or a Twitter account from being visible in a specific jurisdiction – the accounts and tweets can still be viewed in other countries.  Twitter says that in France it removed tweets, which under French Law, were considered hate speech and in Germany it withheld access to the Twitter account of a white supremacist organisation.

Of the 11 countries these were the only two to have content withheld; the remaining nine countries were unsuccessful in their requests.

Country Removal Requests – Court Orders Removal Requests – Gov Agency, Police, Other Percentage of requests where some or all content withheld Users / Accounts Specified Accounts Withheld Tweets Withheld
Australia 0 1 0% <10 0 0
Brazil 16 0 0% 22 0 0
Canada 2 0 0% <10 0 0
France 0 1 100% 40 0 44
Germany 0 2 50% <10 1 0
India 1 1 0% 16 0 0
Japan 0 1 0% <10 0 0
Spain 1 0 0% <10 0 0
Turkey 0 6 0% <10 0 0
United Kingdom 4 2 0% 25 0 0
United States 2 2 0% 12 0 0
TOTAL 26 16 5% 140 1 44

Thirty governments asked Twitter to provide it with information about 1433 Twitter users.  About 57% of these requests were partially or completely successful.  Of the 30 governments 23 were not successful in their requests.

The Netherlands and the UK were the only successful European governments to get access to some users’ data; with 33% and 4% of requests, respectively, being successful.  Other EU governments, such as Ireland, France, Germany, and Spain, were unsuccessful in their requests.

The United States was the most successful country in gaining access to users’ data; it requested access to 1,145 individual accounts and was successful in accessing 69% of these to some degree.

Country User Information Requests Percentage where some or all information produced User / Accounts Specified
Argentina < 10 0% 13
Australia < 10 20% < 10
Austria - - -
Belgium - - -
Brazil 34 12% 43
Bulgaria - - -
Canada 15 7% 22
Denmark < 10 0% < 10
France 12 0% 54
Germany < 10 0% 5
Greece < 10 0% 15
India < 10 0% < 10
Indonesia < 10 0% < 10
Ireland < 10 0% < 10
Israel < 10 0% < 10
Italy < 10 0% < 10
Japan 62 5% 75
Korea, Republic of - - -
Mexico < 10 0% < 10
Netherlands < 10 33% < 10
Peru - - -
Portugal - - -
Qatar < 10 0% < 10
South Sudan < 10 0% < 10
Spain < 10 0% < 10
Sweden - - -
Switzerland < 10 0% < 10
Turkey < 10 0% < 10
United Kingdom 25 4% 27
United States 815 69% 1145
TOTAL 1009 57% 1433

These government requests for data removal are separate from requests made by copyright holders; which can request that Twitter remove copyrighted content uploaded by its users.  Twitter says that the majority of these requests are made under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”).

Twitter says that about half (53%) of all DMCA requests are successful and that in the last six months of 2012 it withheld 5,557 tweets on DMCA grounds from 7,205 accounts.  These figures include 1,648 pieces of media, although Twitter doesn’t give details about what type of media.

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