Centre for Internet & Society

Transparency Reports are a step towards greater accountability but how efficacious are they really?

Prachi Arya examines the transparency reports released by tech giants with a special focus on user data requests made to Google and Facebook by Indian law enforcement agencies.

The research was conducted as part of the 'SAFEGUARDS' project that CIS is doing with Privacy International and IDRC.

According to a recent comScore Report India has now become the third largest internet user with nearly 74 million citizens on the Internet, falling just behind China and the United States. The report also reveals that Google is the preferred search engine for Indians and Facebook is the most popular social media website followed by LinkedIn and Twitter. While users posting their photos on Facebook can limit viewership through privacy settings, there isn’t much they can do against government seeking information on their profiles. All that can be said for sure in the post-Snowden world is that large-scale surveillance is a reality and the government wants it on their citizen’s online existence. In this Orwellian scenario, transparency reports provide a trickle of information on how much our government finds out about us.

The first transparency report was released by Google three years ago to provide an insight into ‘the scale and scope of government requests for censorship and data around the globe’. Since then the issuance of such reports is increasingly becoming a standard practice for tech giants. An Electronic Frontier Foundation Report reveals that major companies that have followed Google’s lead include Dropbox, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Twitter with Facebook and Yahoo! being the latest additions . Requests to Twitter and Microsoft from Indian law enforcement agencies were significantly less than requests to Facebook and Google. Twitter revealed that Indian law enforcement agencies made less than 10 requests, none of which resulted in sharing of user information. Out of the 418 requests made to Microsoft by India (excluding Skype), 88.5 per cent were complied with for non-content user data. The Yahoo! Transparency Report revealed that 6 countries surpassed India in terms of the number of user data requests. Indian agencies requested user data 1490 times from 2704 accounts for both content and non-content data and over 50 per cent of these requests were complied with.

The following is a compilation of what the latest transparency reports issued by Facebook and Google.

"The information we share on the Transparency Report is just a sliver of what happens on the internet"
Susan Infantino, Legal Director for Google

Beginning from December 2009, Google has published several biannual transparency reports:

  • It discloses traffic data of Google services globally and statistics on removal requests received from copyright owners or governments as well as user data requests received from government agencies and courts. It also lays down the legal process required to be followed by government agencies seeking data.
  • There was a 90 per cent increment in the number of content removal requests received by Google from India. The requests complied with included:
    • Restricting videos containing clips from the controversial movie “Innocence of Muslims” from view.
    • Many YouTube videos and comments as well as some Blogger blog posts being restricted from local view for disrupting public order in relation to instability in North East India.
  • For User Data requests, the Google report details the number of user data requests and users/accounts as well as percentage of requests which were partially or completely complied with. In India the user data requests more than doubled from 1,061 in the July-December 2009 period to 2,431 in the July-December 2012 period. The compliance rate decreased from 79 per cent in the July-December 2010 period to 66 per cent in the last report.
  • Jurisdictions outside the United States can seek disclosure using Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties or any ‘other diplomatic and cooperative arrangement’. Google also provides information on a voluntary basis if requested following a valid legal process if the requests are in consonance with international norms, U.S. and the requesting countries' laws and Google’s policies.


    "We hope this report will be useful to our users in the ongoing debate about the proper standards for government requests for user information in official investigations."
    Colin Stretch, Facebook General Counsel

Facebook inaugurated its first ever transparency report last Tuesday with a promise to continue releasing these reports.

  • The ‘Global Government Requests Report’ provides information on the number of requests received by the social media giant for user/account information by country and the percentage of requests it complied with. It also includes operational guidelines for law enforcement authorities.
  • The report covers the first six months of 2013, specifically till June 30. In this period India made 3,245 requests from 4,144 users/accounts and half of these requests were complied with.
  • Jurisdictions outside the United States can seek disclosure by way of mutual legal assistance treaties requests or letter rogatory. Legal requests can be in the form of search warrants, court orders or subpoena. The requests are usually made in furtherance of criminal investigations but no details about the nature of such investigations are provided.
  • Broad or vague requests are not processed. The requests are expected to include details of the law enforcement authority issuing the request and the identity of the user whose details are sought.

The Indian Regime

Section 69 and 69 B of the Information Technology (Amended) Act, 2008 prescribes the procedure and sets safeguards for the Indian Government to request user data from corporates. According to section 69, authorized officers can issue directions to intercept, monitor or decrypt information for the following reasons:

  1. Sovereignty or integrity of India,
  2. Defence of India,
  3. Security of the state,
  4. Friendly relations with foreign states,
  5. Maintenance of public order,
  6. Preventing incitement to the commission  of any cognizable offence relating to the above, or
  7. For investigation of any offence.

Section 69 B empowers authorized agencies to monitor and collect information for cyber security purposes, including ‘for identification, analysis and prevention of intrusion and spread of computer contaminants’. Additionally, there are rules under section 69 and 69 B that regulate interception under these provisions.

Information can also be requested through the Controller of Certifying Authority under section 28 of the IT Act which circumvents the stipulated procedure. If the request is not complied with then the intermediary may be penalized under section 44.

The Indian Government has been increasingly leaning towards greater control over online communications. In 2011, Yahoo! was slapped with a penalty of Rs. 11 lakh for not complying with a section 28 request, which called for email information of a person on the grounds of national security although the court subsequently stayed the Controller of Certifying Authorities' order. In the same year the government called for pre-screening user content by internet companies and social media sites to ensure deletion of ‘objectionable content’ before it was published. Similarly, the government has increasingly sought greater online censorship, using the Information Technology Act to arrest citizens for social media posts and comments and even emails criticizing the government.

What does this mean for Privacy?

The Google Transparency Report has thrown light on an increasing trend of governmental data requests on a yearly basis. The reports published by Google and Facebook reveal that the number of government requests from India is second only to the United States. Further, more than 50 per cent of the requests from India have led to disclosure by nearly all the companies surveyed in this post, with Twitter being the single exception.

Undeniably, transparency reports are important accountability mechanisms which reaffirm the company’s dedication towards protecting its user’s privacy. However, basic statistics and vague information cannot lift the veil on the full scope of surveillance. Even though Google’s report has steadily moved towards a more nuanced disclosure, it would only be meaningful if, inter alia, it included a break-up of the purpose behind the requests. Similarly, although Google has also included a general understanding of the legal process, more specifics need to be disclosed. For example, the report could provide statistics for notifications to indicate how often user’s under scrutiny are not notified. Such disclosures are important to enhance user understanding of when their data may be accessed and for what purposes, particularly without prior or retrospective intimation of the same. Till such time the report can provide comprehensive details about the kind of surveillance websites and internet services are subjected to, it will be of very limited use. Its greatest limitation, however, may lie beyond its scope.

The monitoring regime envisioned under the Information Technology Act effectively lays down an overly broad system which may easily lead to abuse of power. Further, the Indian Government has become infamous for their need to control websites and social media sites. Now, with the Indian Government’s plan for establishing the Central Monitoring System the need for intermediaries to conduct the interception may be done away with, giving the government unfettered access to user data, potentially rendering corporate transparency of data requests obsolete.

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