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Social Networking: When the Government Comes Knocking, Who Has Your Back?

By Electronic Frontier Foundation | Last updated: Jun 19, 2012 - 11:44:24 AM

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New report details the privacy and transparency practices of the Internet's largest companies

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San Francisco - When you use the Internet, you entrust your thoughts, experiences, locations, and more to companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook. But what happens when the government asks these companies to hand over your private information? Will the company stand with you? Today, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) releases its second annual "When the Government Comes Knocking, Who Has Your Back?" report – this time as a white paper and chart tracking some of the Internet's biggest service providers on their public commitments to their users' privacy and security.

Increasingly, federal law enforcement agents are demanding that Internet companies provide their users' data as part of government investigations – sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly. EFF's report examines 18 companies' terms of service, privacy policies, public representations, advocacy, and courtroom track records, awarding them gold stars for best practices in categories like "tell users about government data demands" and "fight for user privacy in courts."

"This year, we saw a big increase in the number of companies making a public promise to their users to inform them whenever possible when the government comes knocking," said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. "This notice gives users the chance to fight back against government overreaches and to defend themselves if investigators want to unfairly fish around in their personal information. It appears that promising to notify your customers of government data demands is on the way to becoming an industry standard for responsible companies."

EFF first published its chart last year to recognize exemplary practices by some companies. We were pleased to see that Facebook, Dropbox, and Twitter have each upgraded their practices in the past year. Sonic.net, an ISP based in Santa Rosa, California, earned a gold star in every category. Cloud storage sites Dropbox and SpiderOak and business networking site LinkedIn also fared well, earning recognition in three categories each.

"Online service providers are the guardians of some of your most intimate data – everything from your messages, to location information, to the identities of your family and friends," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann. "We wanted to acknowledge companies that are adopting best practices and taking exceptional steps to defend their users against government overreaches in the courts and in Congress."

In addition to upgrading their own practices, many Internet companies have joined with civil liberties groups into a powerful coalition working to clarify outdated privacy laws so that there is no question about when the government needs a warrant to access sensitive users data.

"This year, we saw a number of major Internet companies join the Digital Due Process coalition, which is aimed at getting Congress to make lasting improvements in the laws that protect our electronic privacy," said EFF Activism Director Rainey Reitman. "This should be a wakeup call to Congress to clarify outdated laws so there is no question that government agents need a court-ordered warrant before accessing sensitive location data, email content, and documents stored in the cloud."

For the full report "When the Government Comes Knocking, Who Has Your Back?":
https://www.eff.org/pages/who-has-your-back

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