Facebook is hopping on the transparency train by releasing its first-ever transparency report this morning. Covering 74 countries and detailing over 38,000 government requests for data, the document sheds some light on how Facebook works with governments. Some, but not much.
While there's a story behind every country's figures, the biggest one is about the United States, which claimed a solid half of all the government requests. In the first six months of 2013, US government agents made between 11,000 and 12,000 requests for data on 20,000 to 21,000 different users. This eclipses the number of requests from India's government, which claimed the second-highest amount with 3245 requests on 4144 users.
You need to look no further than simple population and user numbers to explain the fact that the US and India are the top two countries. The US and India have the most people on Facebook, so naturally there's more activity there. The larger number in the United States is also consistent with transparency reports from companies like Google and Twitter. Though as the Associated Press points out, "The [US] numbers are imprecise because the federal government forbids companies from revealing how many times they've been ordered to turn over information about their customers."
It's hard to look at these numbers and not think about the NSA. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden in June showed the world how closely the NSA works with technology companies to collect information on both foreign and American citizens as a part of US counterterrorism efforts. Mark Zuckerberg denied giving the NSA "direct access" to its servers, despite evidence to the contrary, and just last week, it was reported that Facebook accepted compensation from NSA for its efforts in cooperating with the program. To that Facebook said it "never received any compensation in connection with responding to a government data request." But who knows what's actually true in the he-said-she-said madness.
What we do know is that Facebook is trying very hard to show how they're pushing back against Big Brother. Wrote Colin Stretch, Facebook's General Counsel, in a blog post:
We scrutinize 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.
So how's that for transparency? Pretty unsatisfying, huh? Well, give Facebook a break. This is their first time out, if you don't count the decade they've been receiving these requests and just haven't bothered to share them. [AP, Facebook]