Highlighting Best Practices in Transparency Reporting

The recent battle between Apple and the FBI was front page news. However, every single day law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies ask Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and countless other Internet and telecommunications companies to provide information about their users. Most of these requests never make the front page of the paper. In fact, without the transparency reports that these companies release, we might not have any information at all on these requests. Since Edward Snowden's revelations, the number of companies releasing these reports expanded rapidly, with roughly 50 companies in the U.S. alone currently reporting. As the number of reports has grown, so too has the diversity of the reports, which has fragmented reporting practices and made it difficult to compare and aggregate across reports.  

With this background, we are excited to share the first part of our Transparency Reporting Toolkit. This toolkit, a collaboration between the Open Technology Institute at New America and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, is an effort to survey current practices in transparency reporting, identify best practices, and help companies produce better and more consistent reports.

Recent news stories have reminded us that government and law enforcement agencies are regularly seeking to obtain customer data from devices as well as from Internet and telecommunications companies. These requests have raised a number of questions, prompting a critical and open debate about the scope and scale of government access to users' information. However, without hard data about these requests, engaging in this debate would be difficult, if not impossible. The transparency reports that companies release are often the only glimpse we get into the extent and type of government requests for users’ data.

Over the last few years transparency reports have become more common, but they've also become more diverse and fragmented in their approaches. As companies have innovated and iterated in their reports, it's time to take stock of what's working and what's not; it's time to identify and share best practices. For companies with many transparency reports and those just beginning to take up the practice, there is much to be learned from what others have done.

To help that conversation, today we are sharing a series memos that survey transparency reports from 43 U.S. Internet and telecommunications companies, identify different and innovative approaches, and highlight best practices. To our knowledge, this is the most comprehensive and exhaustive analysis of transparency reports ever conducted. We developed this analysis over two years of collecting reports, interviewing individuals at companies, multiple workshops, and extensive conversations with a variety of stakeholders.

In addition to facilitating the exchange of best practices in transparency reporting, we hope this is also a first step toward increased standardization in reporting. For example, how companies choose what to include, define key terms like "court orders," or how they count recurring, prospective requests are critical decisions. Currently, on these and many other important questions, companies are all over the map. When companies take very different approaches, it makes it difficult to get a complete picture of the law enforcement and surveillance landscape.

In order to help new companies develop transparency reports and other companies improve and standardize their reports, we are also working on a transparency reporting template and guide. We will be workshopping that resource at RightsCon in Silicon Valley this Friday, April 1. If you'll be at RightsCon, please join us and continue the conversation.

Transparency reporting is an increasingly important tool for gaining insight into the relationship between governments and companies. At the same time, there is an opportunity to improve these resources. The memos we are sharing today are first step in a longer conversation about how to turn transparency reports into a more powerful resource for individuals, civil society, policymakers, companies, journalists, and others.

Download the Transparency Toolkit Survey & Best Practice Memos

Authors:

Ryan Budish

Liz Woolery is a senior policy analyst in New America's Open Technology Institute. Her work focuses on the intersection of digital free expression, privacy, and transparency.