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Twitter Transparency Report Warns Of 'Serious Chilling Effect' From Growing Government Surveillance

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TWITTER TRANSPARENCY REPORT
(KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/Getty Images) | Getty Images

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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