Even before Twitter volunteered to support Malcolm Harris in court this past spring, digital rights advocates monitored the legal efforts taken by the micro-blogging website and other Internet companies on behalf of their users. In May of this year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) released its annual report rating online service providers’ commitment to privacy and transparency in the face of government attempts to access user data.
In ruling that Harris, the Occupy Wall Street protester who was charged with disorderly conduct, did not have standing to challenge the subpoena ordering Twitter to hand over his account’s relevant activity, the New York trial court reinforced the role all online service providers might now be expected to take on to protect their users’ constitutional rights.
“While some Internet companies have stepped up for users in particular situations, it’s time for all companies that hold private user data to make public commitments to defend their users against government overreach,” the EFF stated in its study. “The purpose of this report is to incentivize companies to be transparent about what data flows to the government and encourage them to take a stand for user privacy when it is possible to do so.”
Of the online companies whose user support practices it studied, the EFF ranked Sonic.net, a California-based telecommunications company and Internet service provider, the best, awarding it four out of four stars. The report considered whether Internet companies tell users about data demands and government requests, as well as whether they fight for user privacy in courts and in Congress.
The EFF rated Twitter second with three-and-a-half stars and recognized the company for notifying implicated users of government requests and resisting court orders and subpoenas in the Wikileaks and Occupy cases.
Google received three stars and was noted for its two-year-old voluntary transparency report, according the EFF study.
The newest version of Google’s biannual report, released in June, indicated that requests from government agencies in the U.S. to remove Internet content and reveal more information about online users continue to rise, reflecting a similar trend around the world. In a post on Google’s official blog, the company’s senior policy analyst Dorothy Chou said she found the number of government-ordered requests worldwide “troubling.”
“Transparency is a core value at Google,” the company’s report stated. “We believe that more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual.”
On July 2, just days after it was ordered to comply with the subpoena for Harris’ tweets and user information, Twitter released for the first time a transparency report of its own. In the U.S., the company received 679 requests from government agencies — including local, state and federal government offices — that targeted 948 accounts since Jan. 1.
Such reports released by online service providers and media rights advocates are not limited to social media companies like Twitter; news media websites that create forums and invite comments face the same challenge of supporting their users’ free speech and privacy rights, according to Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.
Foursquare, Myspace, Skype and Verizon all tied for last place with no stars in the EFF study, suggesting that certain new media companies can do more to protect their users, who may now have difficulty defending themselves in court after the ruling against Harris’ attempt to intervene in the Twitter subpoena.
“[I]n today’s increasingly digital world, online service providers serve as the guardians of our most intimate data — from email content to location information to our social graph,” the report stated. “The policies adopted by these corporations will have deep and lasting ramifications on whether individual Internet users can communicate free from the shadow of government surveillance.”