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Facebook Transparency Report: Government Requests for User Data Rocket in 2017

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In keeping with other major social networks, Facebook is fielding more requests for private user data than ever - among them secret orders enabling US authorities to demand information without a warrant.

Facebook continues to see increased requests for user data from governments worldwide, according to its latest transparency report.

Transparency reports, introduced by Facebook in 2013, offer raw figures on data requests submitted by governments, and requests granted. Detailed data on the specific requests received is not disclosed, but what figures are available indicate requests totalled 78,890 in the first six months of 2017, a leap of 33 percent year-on-year, and 23 percent on the prior six-month period.

Rocketing Requests

The US, India, UK, Germany and France submitted the most requests, accounting for 41 percent, 12 percent, nine percent, seven percent and six percent respectively. Each government had over half their submissions granted, with the UK (90 percent), US (85 percent), and France (74 percent) in the lead.

​What's also clear is the amount of content restricted at governmental request rocketed 304 percent globally compared to the second half of 2016, from 6,944 to 28,036 — although this increase was primarily driven by requests from Mexican law enforcement to remove instances postings of a video depicting a January school shooting in Monterrey. Facebook restricted access in Mexico to 20,506 posts of the video in the first half of 2017 alone.

​"Requests for account data increased 21 percent globally compared to the second half of 2016, from 64,279 to 78,890. Fifty-seven percent of the data requests we received from law enforcement in the U.S. contained a non-disclosure order that prohibited us from notifying the user, up from 50 percent in our last report," Facebook Deputy General Counsel Chris Sonderby wrote in a blog post.

Sonderby added Facebook "carefully scrutinize" each request received for account data to ensure it's legally sufficient. If a request appears to be deficient or overly broad, Facebook "push back, and will fight in court, if necessary."

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Meanwhile, there were 52 disruptions of Facebook services in nine countries in the first half of 2017, compared to 43 in 20 countries in the second half of 2016. Facebook suggested these shutdowns can create barriers for businesses and prevent people from sharing and communicating with their family and friends.

Facebook also published five previously undisclosed National Security Letters (NSLs) in its report —controversial orders enabling US authorities, most frequently the FBI, to demand user information from companies without a warrant.

​Restrictions related to NSL orders were relaxed by the US Congress in June 2015, with the passing of the USA Freedom Act, which requires the FBI to review NSLs individually. Twitter has challenged the law, however the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July 2017 no company has the right to disclose information about the NSLs they receive publicly.

Nonetheless, Facebook published a redacted NSL in December 2016, after the US government lifted a non-disclosure order. Copies of five NSLs are also available in the transparency report. All are redacted, with information relating to whom the request was for removed. The dates and senders of the request are included, however.

Rising levels of data requests are by no means unique to Facebook — between 2013 — 2015, Google, Apple and Twitter likewise saw increases in government requests such information.

Trademark Infringements

Facebook has also introduced more accountability on IP-related content requests — over 200,000 copyright requests were submitted related to Facebook content over the period, with 68 percent actioned on and 1.8 million pieces of content taken down. Around 70,000 requests for copyright were submitted to Instagram, with 685,000 posts removed.

Moreover, over 110,000 Facebook posts were removed for trademark infringement, with over 37,000 removed from Instagram.

The numbers are quite revealing when it comes to claims of counterfeits. Facebook said 217,265 of content on its social network were removed after it acted on 81 percent of 14,279 claims in the first half of the year. On Instagram, it took action against 108,094 posts following 10,231 counterfeit claims.

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