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Twitter transparency report shows government data requests on the rise

The social network says the trends will continue 'into the foreseeable future'

Twitter has released new numbers showing that the social network complied with government data requests 69 percent of the time in the U.S., as government requests for user information worldwide continue to rise.

The total number of information requests increased to 1,009 during the second half of 2012, up from 849 during the first half of the year, according to Twitter's transparency report. Government requests for content removal also increased to 42 from just six.

"All signs suggest that these government inquiries will continue to climb into the foreseeable future," Twitter said.

Copyright violation notices, on the other hand, fell slightly to 3,268 from 3,378 during 2012's first six months.

At 815, more than 80 percent of all the user information requests during the second half of 2012 came from the U.S., up 20 percent from 679 during the first half of the year. Twitter complied with the requests 69 percent of the time, the company reported.

Of those requests, 60 percent came in the form of subpoenas, which generally do not require a judge's sign-off and usually seek basic user information such as the email address associated with an account and IP logs, Twitter said.

Court orders, which must be signed by a judge, comprised 11 percent of the requests made in the U.S., the company reported.

Search warrants, which typically require the most judicial scrutiny, represented 19 percent of all domestic information requests, said Twitter. For a search warrant to be issued, for instance, there must be a showing of probable cause as well as a judge's signature, according to the company. And with a properly executed warrant, tweets and direct messages can be disclosed, the report said.

The remaining requests in the U.S. originated from other processes such as emergency requests related to death or serious physical injury to a person.

Most user information requests are tied to criminal investigations or cases. Twitter's policy is to notify users of requests for their account information unless the company is prohibited from doing so by law or in an emergency situation.

At 62, Japan was the country with the second-highest number of information requests, while Brazil was in third with 34.

The company released its first transparency report last July, which published six months of data on government data requests for user information, government requests to withhold content and Digital Millennium Copyright Act-related complaints from copyright holders.

Twitter said that since then it has been thinking about how to share the information more effectively and to make it more accessible. The more granular details regarding information requests from the U.S. go hand in hand with that goal, Twitter said.

The company also provides some information in the new report on reasons why it would not comply with an information request. For example, Twitter says it does not comply with requests that fail to identify a Twitter account, and that it may seek to narrow requests that are overly broad.

"We believe the open exchange of information can have a positive global impact," Twitter legal policy manager Jeremy Kessel wrote in a blog post. "To that end, it is vital for us (and other Internet services) to be transparent about government requests for user information and government requests to withhold content from the Internet; these growing inquiries can have a serious chilling effect on free expression -- and real privacy implications."

Twitter released its report on the same day Google also sought to provide greater clarity on how it will handle government data requests going forward. Last week Google put out its own transparency report, but on Monday the firm offered additional details on how it says it strives to balance its adherence to investigative laws with protecting users' privacy rights.

"It's important for law enforcement agencies to pursue illegal activity and keep the public safe," said David Drummond, Google senior vice president and chief legal officer, in a blog post. "But it's just as important that laws protect you against overly broad requests for your personal information."

The company reiterated that whenever a government agency asks for a user's personal information -- such as the information that is provided when signing up for a Google account or the contents of an email -- Google carefully scrutinizes the request, and notifies users "about legal demands when appropriate so that they can contact the entity requesting it or consult a lawyer."

Both Twitter and Google identified Jan. 28 as Data Privacy Day.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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