Facebook has become the latest web company to release a 'transparency report' about how governments around the world asks for information on its users.
It's joined what has become an industry-wide movement towards openness about government surveillance and privacy rules, especially after the national security scandal caused by whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the American National Security Agency's (NSA) reach.
The USA is far ahead of other countries when it comes to information requests (11,000 requests in the first six months of 2013), but India is not far behind either. It has the second-highest number of requests for information at a tidy 3,245. Around half of these requests have been declined.
But while Facebook's move towards transparency is laudable, the actual transparency report is somewhat vague on the details of how these requests are processed. To quote the report:
"...We have stringent processes in place to handle all government data requests. We believe this process protects the data of the people who use our service, and requires governments to meet a very high legal bar with each individual request in order to receive any information about any of our users. We scrutinise each request for legal sufficiency under our terms and the strict letter of the law, and require a detailed description of the legal and factual bases for each request. We fight many of these requests, pushing back when we find legal deficiencies and narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests. When we are required to comply with a particular request, we frequently share only basic user information, such as name."
Stringent processes. High legal bar. Scrutinising requests. Detailed descriptions of requests. 'Push back.' A lot of phrases which divulge nothing. After reading the transparency report, we are none the wiser about how a request is processed. Where does Facebook as a company draw the line between greater good and individual privacy?
Secondly, the lack of context makes these numbers even more meaningless. For example, Google in its reports make does spell out examples of what kind of requests it got and why it rejected them. This is not to say that Google is giving out too many specifics, but at least it gives some indicators.
Twitter too provided some sense of what kind of data upset governments. For example the French government's attitude to hate speech could be tracked through the requests it made to Twitter. "In 2012, we saw that France was amongst the least active countries in terms of requests; however, in 2013, the French government has taken a more aggressive stance on Twitter concerning hate speech, ultimately resulting in Twitter giving in to demands by the government to have streamlined access to reporting inappropriate tweets," pointed out this article.
Though this is Facebook's first report, one needs to remember that the company has data on earlier periods. Even a percentage indication of growth or reduction would have made Facebook's current revelations more meaningful.
Thirdly, the kind of requests made are not detailed upon either. Google's reports not only breaks down examples of requests by whether they were on Youtube, Gmail or any of their products, but also indicates what kind of requests they were. For example:
We received a court order addressed to a third party to remove 247 search results for linking to websites that allegedly violated an individual's privacy. We did not remove the search results because we were unable to determine their relationship to the court order. We requested clarification but did not receive a reply.
We received a request from a city Cyber Crime Investigation Cell to remove current depictions of disputed borders of Jammu and Kashmir in five Google Maps domains other than maps.google.co.in. We did not change our depiction of the borders in response to this request.
Facebook's report does not divulge any details which would lead to a meaningful analysis. In fact, the only achievement of revealing this data — Facebook getting the label of a 'transparent' web company.