Government Requests for Users’ Data from Online Service Providers: Implications for Free Speech

//Tatevik Sargsyan, future AnOx participant and current Doctoral student at American University, discusses government requests for user data from online service providers and its potential implications on freedom of speech.

In 2010, an Occupy activist was indicted by US Homeland Security for allegedly possessing contraband spy cameras he purchased online. He believed the law enforcement officials discovered his purchase through access to his e-mail account.

Internet communication technologies have made information collection about individuals’ online and offline activities easier for governments, particularly with the help of online service providers. While the latter collect private information about users through cookies, IP addresses, and GPS signals, to better target ads and services to users, governments ask for such information to monitor their citizens’ behaviors. As the transparency reports of Google, Twitter, and Microsoft show, the number of user information requests by law enforcement agencies are rising.

Many would agree that users’ data collection by governments is sometimes in the public interest to help fight crime and terrorism and secure public safety. However, at times it may serve the purpose of discovering the identities of political activists, journalists, and advocates in order to suppress them and sustain existing powers. Thus, as governments are collecting more and more information about users, increasingly asking telecommunication companies and online service providers for users’ communication content, geographic location, and contacts, it is worth questioning whether governments are using this power to suppress challenges to their existing social and political structures.

It is possible that even without the presence of harassment or punishment of activists, the threat of surveillance alone may create a hostile environment for exercising free speech. Regardless of the specific intentions of governments, requests for users’ data from online service providers can create a chilling effect for those who think they might be a target of government surveillance.

Both actual information requests and rumors of such requests can lead politically or socially active individuals to self-censor. This type of self-censorship poses a threat to political and social change which relies on freedom of speech. Therefore, actions should be taken to ensure that government data collection requests do not have these far reaching negative effects.

To protect freedom of speech citizens must ensure that governments adhere to proper procedures, laws, and regulations when collecting or requesting user information from online service providers, which is not currently occurring. Recently, the court found National Security Letters demanding user account information from online service providers without warrants unconstitutional. However, reports from online service providers and telecommunication companies show that a majority of government requests for users’ data do not involve a judge.

Citizens also must demand that online service providers are explicit, detailed, and transparent in their privacy policies and their procedures and rationale when handling government requests for users’ information. Offering transparency and protecting users against unwarranted government requests will be important in establishing trust between companies and their customers. Transparency efforts by online service providers may ultimately pressure governments to follow strict legal processes when requesting users’ data.

//Tatevik Sargsyan



Featured Photo Credit: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Tim Dorr


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