The latest high profile free speech fight isn’t over a book, a movie or even a video game. Instead, the court case is over a corporate report, and has led media companies to join Twitter in an unusual First Amendment challenge of government gag orders.
The court case highlights the growing significance of the so-called “transparency reports” that Twitter and a growing number of other companies, are using to inform users about government demands and other trends that affect the internet.
Since they began appearing five years ago, the reports have served as an important measure of free speech and privacy. But they can also be a PR tool for the companies that publish them. As a federal judge in California gets ready to hear Twitter’s case, it’s time to reflect what these reports are — and are not — all about.
Five years of reports on snooping, and Snowden
Google published the first Transparency Report in 2010. It showed how often the government came calling for information about users (such as Gmail messages), and also explained how many times copyright owners and others asked Google to remove content from the web.
Subsequent Google reports evolved to include data from other countries, and occasionally included droll details about specific government requests — like the time the Mounties demanded to know which Canadian had peed on his passport in a YouTube video (Google refused to say). More seriously, the reports show how governments are using Google as a back-door way to collect information about their citizens, and how this phenomenon is increasing.
After 2010, other tech companies came to follow Google’s example: Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft and others have now issued several reports of their own. The reports vary in detail and sophistication, but all point to a similar drumbeat of demands by governments for information about users’ identities and personal data.
In 2013, the reports took on a new importance in the wake of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed how U.S. and other intelligence agencies had created a massive surveillance apparatus on the back of data gleaned from tech and phone companies. Civil libertarian groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation also describe them as essential to pressing for surveillance reform.
“This is how we hold countries accountable for action … Governments behave better when they know they’re being watched and tracked,” said Eva Galperin of the EFF in an interview last year.
Post-Snowden, the tech industry redoubled legal challenges against government gag orders that preclude them from disclosing the very existence of the stealthy procedures (such as National Security Letters and “FISA Orders”) that agencies like the FBI and NSA use to demand data.
This pushback includes Twitter’s legal challenge, which last week led a range of media companies — from the Guardian to NPR to BuzzFeed — to file a supporting brief.
“Twitter’s proposed transparency report is no less entitled to free speech protections than ‘literature’ or ‘movies,'” claimed the companies.
But even as the ongoing legal battle over transparency reports heats up, the actual impact of the reports is unclear.
Public service … or public relations?
In the wake of the Snowden revelations, a crush of companies have rushed to publish transparency reports of their own, often gaining press attention for doing so. This month, for instance, Reddit’s inaugural report merited a write-up in the New York Times even though its contents suggested the government has taken only scant interest in the internet news site.
A list on Google’s website shows that at least three dozen other companies, ranging from Verizon to Pinterest, are publishing transparency reports of one type or another (see Pinterest graphic at right). Meanwhile, Google itself continues to publish its own semi-annual report in blog posts under headlines that suggest surveillance is on the rise.
While all of this serves to put a spotlight on government demands, it may also paradoxically serve to to dim it. That’s because the sheer volume of transparency reports, and the regular warning of government spying, could lead to public apathy on the issue.
Public indifference could also be hastened by the complexity of the legal issues (such as the distinctions between search warrants, subpoenas and security letters), and by the rivalries between companies that publish the reports.
Google and Facebook, for instance, have sniped over who deserves credit for standing up to the Justice Department through transparency reports. Meanwhile, the reports themselves don’t provide all the context to determine if surveillance really is becoming more pervasive — or if the rising number of requests is a function of more people being online.
Galperin of the EFF says she would like to see some sort of standardized reporting for transparency documents one day, but disagrees that there is fatigue with the reports themselves.
“I’m less concerned with specific companies, but with ensuring that startups create the reports from the very beginning. If you work with user data, they government will come calling for it.”
How the media should deal with data
An engineer at a major tech company who has helped to produce transparency reports told me he disagrees that the process needs to be more formalized, or that the process needs an oversight mechanism to ensure companies don’t exploit the process for public relations purposes.
“How do you deem from the outset who is the outside audience? I don’t care if someone working with a spreadsheet is a tenured prof or a high school kid good at analytics,” said the engineer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He added that certain data sets are more “mediagenic” than others, pointing to less-publicized items like a Google transparency report on unsafe websites, but that publicizing data typically produces change for the better.
If the transparency reports do produce results, this could strengthen Twitter’s court challenge that gag orders directed at them amount to an illegal prior restraint on speech, and that companies have the right to put out so-called “warrant canaries.”
Meanwhile, the media companies’ decision to file briefs in the case appears to validate the engineer’s opinion that the prime duty of those who publish transparent reports is to put out data, not deconstruct it.
“The value of transparency reports is measured by diligent and astute media — those who roll up their sleeves and engage with it and find what it ultimately means, rather than just spitting out facts.”