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How to Make Transparency Reports Better

Ryan Budish is a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.  Ryan, Liz Woolery, and Kevin Bankston are the authors of the recently released Transparency Reporting Toolkit: Reporting Guide & Template for Reporting on U.S. Government Requests for User Information. This post originally appeared on Medium.

On the precipice of Donald Trump’s presidency, transparency reports about government law enforcement and surveillance requests are more important than ever before. President Elect Trump will inherit a powerful surveillance apparatus, with numerous legal levers by which to demand that companies reveal their users’ private information. Due to gag orders and other restraints, transparency reports will become the primary insight into the use (or abuse) of these powerful surveillance tools.

As we begin 2017, we are proud to announce the publication of Transparency Reporting Toolkit: Reporting Guide & Template, which builds off our survey of best practices, released last year. Our Guide & Template aims to provide companies the tools they need to publish transparency reports that are more consistent, easier to understand, and more effective.

Transparency reports are the methods by which a company’s legal team releases information to the public about the frequency, and the authority by which a government requests the company for user data. After studying the landscape of reporting, it became clear that each report varied in significant ways. In some cases these variations reflected powerful new innovations in reporting, but in most cases the differences simply made it impossible to compare and aggregate information across reports. For that reason, we created the Guide & Template to help nudge companies that are already publishing reports toward more standardized best practices, and to help companies that aren’t yet publishing reports to get started.

In March, New America’s Open Technology Institute and Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society released an eight-part Transparency Reporting Toolkit Survey & Research Memos, which identified best practices in reporting based on an extensive survey of current practices. In determining the different and innovative approaches to reporting and highlighting best practices, our hope was to help companies improve and standardize their reports.

This newly published reporting guide and template is an extension of that work. It provides practical assistance to help companies translate those best practices into their reports by walking companies through the reporting process. Utilizing a text-based guide alongside a template of introductory text and tables for reporting on user data requests, we explain the methods currently used by companies in their transparency reports, and highlight the best practices our teams have identified. We explain why each best practice was selected, and have also highlighted innovative practices that a company might consider adopting.

We hope this template and guide serves as an aid for companies as they seek to develop their transparency reports, and we look forward to working with them in further developing this resource. As companies work to implement this guidance, we encourage them to contact us to share feedback and update us on changes to their reports. Feedback and other comments can be sent to transparency_toolkit@cyber.harvard.edu.

The full Reporting Guide & Template can be downloaded here.