Facebook sees spike in government requests for data, content restriction

The social network sees a massive increase in the amount of content banned in India for being anti-religious or hate speech.

Katie Collins
Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
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Requests for user data from Facebook are not going away any time soon.

DADO RUVIC/Reuters/Corbis

Governments continued to pelt Facebook with an increasing number of requests for user data in the first half of 2015, the social network said Wednesday. They also demanded that Facebook restrict more content than ever because of local laws.

The number of data requests rose 18 percent to 17,577 compared to the last six months of 2014, according to a Facebook's latest transparency report. The pieces of content restricted for violating local laws in specific countries, though, jumped 112 percent, to 20,568 pieces of content.

Delving into the report further reveals that one country, India, was responsible for 15,155 of these restrictions. No other country even surpassed the 1,000 mark. "We restricted access in India to content reported primarily by law enforcement agencies and the India Computer Emergency Response Team within the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology because it was anti-religious and hate speech that could cause unrest and disharmony within India," the social network said in the report.

Facebook, the world's largest social network, has published global government request reports once every six months for the past few years to be transparent about exactly how much law enforcement agencies and governments are using Facebook to obtain data on people using the social network. That number steadily rises. Facebook's reports also detail on a country-by-country basis what percentage of requests the Menlo Park, California, complies with. The company agreed to hand over some data to the authorities in 80 percent of cases in the US.

"As we have emphasized before, Facebook does not provide any government with 'back doors' or direct access to people's data," wrote Chris Sonderby, Facebook's deputy general counsel in a blog post introducing the report. "If a request appears to be deficient or overly broad, we push back hard and will fight in court, if necessary."

Many tech companies, including Twitter, Apple and Google, have released similar transparency reports in the wake of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which revealed for the first time the extent to which governments and law enforcement agencies spy on citizens' private communications. Although limited in how much it may reveal, Facebook's report does offer some insight into how the social network and authorities work together.

Facebook may not, for example, detail the number of requests from intelligence agencies the same way it does with law enforcement requests. Instead, the company must give the requests in ranges of 1,000. It received between 0 and 999 national security requests first six months of the year, according to this latest report.

Although the number of requests from governments is increasing across the board, the fraction of requests from US and UK authorities that Facebook complies with has remained roughly level in recent years.