Governments around the world demand more user data from Facebook

On Wednesday, Facebook released a new report tracking government requests showing that the US, India, and the UK lead in requests for user information.

Shirish Shete/Press Trust of India via AP/File
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg interacts with technology students in a town hall-style meeting in New Delhi, India in October. The social media released a report on Wednesday on government requests for data. It shows that requests to block content in India have nearly tripled.

Governments across the world are increasingly asking Facebook to turn over data to aid in law enforcement investigations, while some countries are dramatically stepping up their attempts to block content online, according to the social media site’s newest report on government requests.

Facebook received requests from 92 countries for 20,568 pieces of data during the last six months, the report found. The United States, for example, filed 17,577 requests about the accounts of 26,579 users. About 80 percent of such requests resulted in Facebook handing over at least some data.

The social media site points to the report as an effort to increase transparency about what types of information governments request online, as Facebook and other tech companies have fought a number of court battles and asserted that they don’t indiscriminately turn over information.

“Facebook does not provide any government with 'back doors' or direct access to people’s data,” Chris Sonderby, the site’s deputy general counsel wrote in a blog post announcing the report. “If a request appears to be deficient or overly broad, we push back hard and will fight in court, if necessary,” he added.

But the report shows that while some countries — such as China, where the site is blocked — requested no data and only blocked 5 pieces of content, a small number of countries were responsible for an overwhelming number of the requests.

India’s use of content blocking nearly tripled in the last year, from 4,960 items during the first half of last year to 15,155 in the first half of 2015.

Facebook says it blocks content in the country “under local laws prohibiting criticism of a religion or the state.” But the country has faced criticism over how it handles information online.

In August, a month before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was set to embark on a whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley, 100 academics whose research focuses on South Asia wrote to the tech firms to argue that Mr. Modi’s widely-promoted Digital India program raised civil liberties concerns, but wasn’t widely discussed in the US.

“ ‘Digital India' seems to ignore key questions raised in India by critics concerned about the collection of personal information and the near certainty that such digital systems will be used to enhance surveillance and repress the constitutionally-protected rights of citizens,” they wrote.

Turkey had the second-highest number of content restrictions, blocking 4,496 pieces of content, compared to 1,893 a year earlier, while France made 295 requests to block content, up from 22, the report says.

The report includes much more detailed information about what types of requests are made under American law than in other countries, though how the information is used is unclear.

For example, Facebook responded to 1,315 so-called pen register or trap-and-trace requests, which more than doubled since last year. The request can include in-going and out-going Web signals, such as a user’s IP address – though not the content of information that is sent, Facebook says.

Traditionally, pen registers are used by police to obtain information from a phone company and require a warrant from a judge showing that the information is “relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.”

But in contrast to the backlash against “Digital India,” in Europe, activists have pushed for content restrictions in response to online hate speech.

In Germany, for example, Facebook has faced criticism for not doing enough to ban racist posts particularly directed against Syrian refugees. A large part of the debate focused on the site’s community standards, which critics charged did not go far enough to prevent the “incitement of hatred,” which is a crime in Germany.

Perhaps reflecting this ongoing activism, which grew to include a social media campaign for action directed at German chancellor Angela Merkel, the country’s requests to block content increased to 188 in the last six months, from 34 during the same period last year.

“When people stir up sedition on social networks using their real name, it's not only the state that has to act, but also Facebook as a company should do something against these slogans,” Ms. Merkel said in an interview with the newspaper Rheinische Post in September. 

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