Why Facebook doesn’t have to listen to the U.N.

August 1, 2013

(Tony Avelar / Bloomberg)

Somali pirates: They're no longer the amateur, AK-47-toting hooligans riding around in speedboats of yesteryear. With the benefit of mother ships and satellite navigation and communications equipment, their operations are growing more sophisticated by the day.

In an attempt to one-up them, a U.N. agency asked Facebook to turn over its data relating to the pirates' use of the social network. Facebook's response? Meh.

It's not clear what the United Nations could've learned from the information, even if Facebook had agreed to comply. In principle, mapping out a suspect's social connections should provide insight on the target's activities, and it's just the sort of thing the NSA does with its PRISM surveillance program. As The New Republic's Molly Redden writes, however, when you don't have the resources of the American intelligence apparatus to back you up, this kind of network analysis takes a great deal of manual labor — which defeats the point of asking for the data in bulk, anyway.

Facebook's attitude toward the U.N. investigators underscores another important point about being an Internet company in the 21st century — or perhaps more accurately, being an American Internet company.

Facebook doesn't owe the United Nations anything, as the company pointed out in a statement earlier this week. The international organization doesn't have the legal authority to compel any data transfer.

Other countries' law enforcement agencies do, and if Facebook's forthcoming transparency reports look anything like Google's, it probably receives quite a few requests for user data.

But on average, in Google's case, only 66 percent of requests for data ever get fulfilled. That rate would be even lower if you excluded the United States, which in the second half of last year accounted for 40 percent of all 21,389 worldwide data requests submitted to Google.


(Google)

As U.S.-based companies, Google, Facebook and the like are uniquely positioned to say "no" to foreign entities looking to tap into their vast databases. At the same time, because so much of the world's Internet traffic flows through U.S. servers, Washington is also in a favorable position to demand that data. You can see this expressed in the table above. Looking at the top five countries to which Google handed over user data, everyone from Singapore on down enjoys a high fulfillment rate but made relatively few requests. The United States, meanwhile, not only made more requests than any other country but also had its requests met more often.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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