the-fog-of-twitter

Today, Twitter published its fifth-ever transparency report, detailing the number and nature of government requests it receives. These demands include requests for user data, content removal, and copyright notices. Between January and June of this year, the report notes, Twitter received 2,058 requests for account information, a 46 percent increase over the previous six months. Over half of these requests (1257) came from the US government, and Twitter complied with these orders 72 percent of the time. By comparison, between July and December of last year US requests numbered 833, and during that period Twitter complied 68 percent of the time.

The real number of requests, however, is likely far larger. Despite repeated pleas from Twitter, which were made most recently at a meeting with the Department of Justice and the FBI, the US government does not allow the company to disclose account information requests related to national security. And considering the furor over the NSA’s mass surveillance programs revealed last year, the absence of these requests from Twitter’s reports is glaring.

Twitter sought to strike a compromise with the Department of Justice, asking at the very least for the latitude to share the types of requests it receives pertaining to national security, and to indicate if zero requests were made for a particular category. But the DOJ wouldn’t budge, writes Jeremy Kessel, Twitter’s Senior Manager of Global Legal Policy:

Unfortunately, we were not able to make any progress at this meeting, and we were not satisfied with the restrictions set forth by the DOJ. So in early April, we sent a draft midyear Transparency Report to DOJ that presented relevant information about national security requests, and asked the Department to return it to us, indicating which information (if any) is classified or otherwise cannot lawfully be published. At this point, over 90 days have passed, and we still have not received a reply.

Kessel adds, “We remain disappointed with the DOJ’s inaction.”

Twitter should be commended for pushing back against the US government’s disclosure restrictions and for using its platform to call attention to the latest revision of the USA FREEDOM Act, which would grant Twitter the ability to be share more information with users about when and how often they ship their data off to the US government.

Of course, Twitter can afford to take a more transparency-friendly stance — after all, the vast majority of what’s shared on Twitter is public anyway. But even though it’s not Twitter’s fault, its transparency report is a lot like its recent diversity report: A nice thought, but with little to suggest the situation will improve anytime soon.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]