Twitter's second transparency report, released Tuesday, documents government requests for users' information. The results will surprise no one who has been keeping track of civil liberties online: Law enforcement has an increasing appetite for private information.
The report disclosed that Twitter received 1,009 requests for account information from July to December 2012, a 19 percent jump from the first half of the year, which Twitter chronicled in its first transparency report in July. Eighty-one percent of the new requests came from the U.S.
"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," Twitter's manager of legal policy, Jeremy Kessel, said in a blog post accompanying the report. "These growing inquiries can have a serious chilling effect on free expression -- and real privacy implications."
Twitter said it was often asked to hand over data without a warrant. Because of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, law enforcement may often use a subpoena to demand basic subscriber information, such as the email address associated with an account. Around 60 percent of requests for Twitter data from the U.S. involved only a subpoena, which law enforcement agencies can simply write themselves without going to a judge.
Of course, the police aren't always perfect. Right before Google released a similar report of its own last week that also showed government surveillance increasing, one of the search giant's lawyers revealed that it often receives information requests for Facebook. Twitter said that 31 percent of the time, it produced no information in response to U.S. law enforcement agency requests.
Twitter said it received requests from 30 countries for user information in 2012. Almost all were denied, according to its transparency report. The microblogging service maintains that it is under no obligation to turn over information to foreign governments because almost all of its servers and employees are in the U.S.
User privacy is under attack in countries that include France, where a court recently ordered Twitter to unmask the anonymous individuals behind racist and anti-Semitic tweets. The company has yet to respond to that order.
If the past is any guide, Twitter may choose to fight for its users' privacy. The company's transparency report could pressure other Internet companies like Facebook to be more open about their cooperation with law enforcement -- and on Congress to reform electronic privacy laws.
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Internet use is extremely restricted with many of North Korea's 24 million people unable to get online. Some North Koreans can access an internal Intranet that connects to state media. Members of the elite, resident foreigners and visitors in certain hotels are allowed full access to the Internet.
Most Western social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked in Iran, as well as political opposition and sexually explicit websites. But proxy server sites and other methods are widely used to get around the official restrictions. Iran has announced plans to create its own domestic Internet with fully monitored content, but international experts question whether such a complete break from the worldwide Net is possible. Earlier this week, Iran accounted it had developed its own YouTube-style video sharing site.
There are more than 500 million Chinese online but they contend with an extensive Internet filtering and censorship system popularly known as the "Great Fire Wall." Censors police blogs and domestic social media for content deemed pornographic or politically subversive and delete it. Many foreign websites, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the New York Times are blocked. Searches for controversial topics such as corruption scandals or jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo return error messages. Users evade controls using proxy servers.
Tight control, slow connections and high costs mean only around 5 percent of Cubans have access to the global Internet, with another 23 percent relying instead on a government intranet with very limited content. Web access is mainly via public facilities where people must first register with identification.
Gulf Arab States
Political sites deemed threats to the state are often blocked. Since the Arab Spring, authorities across the Gulf have stepped up arrests of bloggers and others for posted considered offensive to rulers or advocating political reforms.
Internet censorship is prevalent across former Soviet Central Asian republics, but the strongest restrictions have been recorded in Iran's authoritarian neighbors to the north, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Controls are strictest in Turkmenistan, where social networking sites Facebook and Twitter are out-of-bounds, as is video-sharing site YouTube and numerous news websites. Uzbekistan has taken a less extreme approach, but sites critical of the government are blocked as a matter of course. Tajikistan, which is like those countries also ruled by an unchallenged strong-man ruler, has twice this year barred access to Facebook after web-surfers used the site to post material critical of government officials.
The government restricts access to the Internet and closely monitors online communications. The U.S. State Department's latest human rights report said the Eritrean government monitored email without obtaining warrants as required by law, and that all Internet service users were required to use one of the three service providers owned directly by the government or controlled through high-ranking members of the country's sole party. But the vast majority people do not have Internet access.