Corporate Accountability News Highlights: Facebook internal documents highlight lack of transparency on content removals, Apple reveals it received a National Security Letter, and WeChat unveils new search feature

Corporate Accountability News Highlights is a regular series by Ranking Digital Rights that highlights key news related to tech companies, freedom of expression, and privacy issues around the world.

The Guardian publishes Facebook internal content guidelines, offering glimpse into opaque process

Image by Veluben (Licensed CC BY-SA 3.0)

An investigation by the Guardian has revealed new details about Facebook’s internal rules for policing and removing content. The “Facebook Files” is based on information from internal training manuals for the company’s moderators leaked to the Guardian, which outline rules for reviewing and removing content, including violent, sexually explicit, extremist, racist, and other types of sensitive materials. Facebook moderators reported having little time to decide whether to remove a given item and voiced concern over confusing and inconsistent content removal policies, according one report.

In response to the Guardian’s investigation, Facebook said they “don’t always share the details of our policies, because we don’t want to encourage people to find workarounds – but we do publish our Community Standards, which set out what is and isn’t allowed on Facebook, and why.”

The Guardian’s investigation puts a spotlight on the lack of transparency by social network companies regarding their internal policies for evaluating and removing content. Findings of the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index showed that most companies evaluated failed to disclose any information about the volume and nature of content they remove for terms of service violations. Only three companies of the 22 evaluated—Google, Microsoft, and Twitter—received any credit for doing so. Facebook does not publish data on any type of content removed for violating its rules, and did not receive any credit on this indicator.

Apple discloses it received a now-declassified National Security Letter

In its latest transparency report, Apple revealed for the first time that a National Security Letter it received from the U.S. government has been declassified, though the company did not publish the letter itself. The USA Patriot Act allows the government to compel a company to disclose user information by issuing a National Security Letter, without a court order. National Security Letters also include a gag order preventing companies from disclosing any information about the request, including to affected users. Some companies have been able to publish some of the national security orders they’ve received through legal challenges and following the passage of the 2015 USA Freedom Act.

Apple also reported it received double the number of national security orders in the last half of 2016 compared to the first half of the year. Apple defines “national security orders” as requests made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) as well as National Security Letters it received. As the company notes, U.S. law allows companies to publish national security requests only within a certain range, but prohibits them from publishing the specific number.

In the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index, Apple received the fourth-highest score of the 12 internet and mobile companies evaluated for its disclosure of data about government and other third-party requests for user information, including the number of requests it receives and with which it complies, the legal authority requests are made under, and what types of user information are requested.

WeChat launches new search feature

WeChat, a messaging app owned by Chinese internet company Tencent, recently launched a new search feature that has been called a “direct challenge” to Chinese search engine Baidu, which currently dominates the Chinese internet search market. Rather than aggregating search results from across the web, the new feature will retrieve content from within WeChat, including posts from a user’s friends and news articles published directly to WeChat. Articles published on WeChat have their own URLs, but Baidu’s search engine is unable to index them.

In the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index, Baidu’s search engine was the lowest-scoring search engine of the five evaluated due to its low levels of disclosure on policies affecting users’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy. Baidu was also the only company in the entire Index to receive no credit in the Governance category, which evaluates a company’s institutional commitments to freedom of expression and privacy principles. Overall, although Tencent disclosed more information than Baidu about its policies affecting users’ rights, both companies disclosed less about policies affecting users’ freedom of expression than about privacy-related policies.

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