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On 'Data Privacy Day,' Google and Twitter Point Finger at Government

Information Requests Are Getting More Frequent, Onerous

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Two of the biggest collectors of consumer data spent Data Privacy Day pointing the finger at someone else: the U.S. government.

Twitter and Google acknowledged Data Privacy Day with blog posts about their approaches to handling government requests for information for law enforcement purposes, referring to some government requests for personal information as "invasive" and "overly broad."

Twitter privacy day
Information requests for Twitter since January 2012.

The elephant in the room: Neither Google nor Twitter mentioned that they themselves collect and store copious amounts of user data for ad targeting, which they provide through third parties for a variety of purposes. In addition to ad-related uses, both Twitter and Google offer data on user activity through intermediaries such as Gnip, a service that sells access to Google+ and Twitter data.

To be clear, Google and Twitter say they do not make personal user information available to advertisers or other business partners -- at least not wittingly. And most advertisers targeting online audiences have no desire for personal user information anyway. However, the failure for either company to make even a minor mention of their own revenue-driven data collection and use is striking.

Facebook -- another giant digital data collector often questioned about its privacy practices by governments, privacy advocates and its own users -- also recognized the global event with a Q&A with its chief privacy officer of policy, Erin Egan, and a streamed interview with two other Facebook privacy execs.

Facebook refrained from pointing the finger at government in its 2012 Data Privacy Day content. The company reiterated that it does not sell user data to advertisers, and stressed other privacy practices related to users' personal data. However, the firm has yet to join the ad industry's widely adopted privacy program which irks some agency execs when it comes to government compliance.

Twitter unveiled a new home for its Twitter Transparency Report, which provides information on government requests for user information from across the globe. On its corporate blog, Jeremy Kessel, Twitter's manager of legal policy, wrote:

"We believe the open exchange of information can have a positive global impact. To that end, it is vital for us (and other Internet services) to be transparent about government requests for user information and government requests to withhold content from the Internet; these growing inquiries can have a serious chilling effect on free expression -- and real privacy implications.

It's our continued hope that providing greater insight into this information helps in at least two ways: first, to raise public awareness about these invasive requests; second, to enable policy makers to make more informed decisions. All of our actions are in the interest of an open and safe Internet."

The Transparency.Twitter.com site showed that the U.S. is by far the most prolific user information requester, having asked Twitter to cough up user data 815 times between July 1 and December 31, 2012. Twitter said it provided some or all of the requested information in 69% of the cases, revealing a total of 1,145 user accounts were divulged.

Google also reminded users that government requests for user information are increasing. The company reported recently that governments made more than 21,000 user data requests in 2012, compared to around 14,000 in 2010. In that time the company has fully or partially complied with fewer requests -- 66% last year compared with 76% in 2010.

"We're a law-abiding company," noted Google in a post today about Data Privacy Day and its approach to responding to government requests for user information. "But it's just as important that laws protect you against overly broad requests for your personal information," continued David Drummond, senior VP and chief legal officer, in the post. "We evaluate the scope of the request. If it's overly broad, we may refuse to provide the information or seek to narrow the request. We do this frequently."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story originally reported that Google sells data on user activity through intermediaries such as Gnip. Google does not receive any fees for access to its Google+ data because it is provided through a free API.

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