Google, Facebook call for leeway on sharing government requests for data

June 11, 2013

Facebook joined Google Tuesday in calling on the U.S. government to allow the tech giants to provide their users more information about the national security data requests they receive.

In a statement, Facebook general counsel Ted Ullyot urged the government to allow companies to “include information about the size and scope of national security requests.” The social network, Ullyot said, would then publish that information for its users to provide “a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond.”

The request followed a public statement from Google on Tuesday afternoon, in which the company said it had sent letters to the U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller seeking permission to publish more data on the national security requests it receives from the government each year.

The companies have been under pressure since revelations last week about a secret data-gathering program at the National Security Agency. Facebook, Google and the Google-owned video site YouTube are among the companies involved in PRISM, a program that The Washington Post has reported monitors information that passes through the companies to and from foreign targets.

Google and Facebook have denied reports that they provide the government with unhindered access to its users’ data, though both companies say they comply with valid legal requests.

U.S. defense contractor Edward Snowden discusses his motivation behind the NSA leak and why he is revealing himself as the whistleblower behind the major story. (Courtesy of Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald)

On Tuesday, Google asked that the government loosen the restrictions its placed on the tech firm to keep it from disclosing more specific information about those requests. Google said

The secrecy, Google chief legal officer David Drummond said in the letter, fuels “speculation” about what the company may be doing with its users’ personal data.

Google wants to publish information on the number and scope of the governments’ requests, including those made through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The result, Drummond wrote, would “clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide.”

In the letters, Google said that it wants to include information about those requests in its regular Transparency Report. The firm began publishing reports disclosing how many requests it receives from governments around the world each year in 2010. These include requests for user data, as well as requests for the firm to remove certain content from its systems, in cases of copyright infringement or censorship laws.

In its latest report on user data requests, which covers data through December , the company said that it received 21,389 U.S. federal requests for user data, which affected 33,634 users or accounts. The firm produced data on 66 percent of those cases.

Google also publishes a range of national security letters and the number of accounts these requests affect every year as a part of its transparency report.

But Google noted that the report does not include requests made through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

“Google appreciates that you authorized the recent disclosure of general numbers for national security letters,” Drummond wrote. “There have been no adverse consequences arising from their publication, and in fact more companies are receiving your approval to do so as a result of Google’s initiative. Transparency here will likewise serve the public interest without harming national security.”

Facebook has not published a transparency report; Ullyot said that the company did not see the value of doing so in the past because the restrictions would require Facebook to make “incomplete” and “potentially misleading” information. However, Ullyot said, Facebook would “welcome the opportunity” to publish a fuller report if the government loosened its restrictions on what companies can share,

Related stories:

Silicon Valley firms deny giving government broad access to data

NSA leaks put focus on intelligence apparatus’s reliance on outside contractors

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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