Guide for Policymakers on Making Transparency Meaningful

Report by CDT: “In 2020, the Minneapolis police used a unique kind of warrant to investigate vandalism of an AutoZone store during the protests over the murder of George Floyd by a police officer. This “geofence” warrant required Google to turn over data on all users within a certain geographic area around the store at a particular time — which would have included not only the vandal, but also protesters, bystanders, and journalists. 

It was only several months later that the public learned of the warrant, because Google notified a user that his account information was subject to the warrant, and the user told reporters. And it was not until a year later — when Google first published a transparency report with data about geofence warrants — that the public learned the total number of geofence warrants Google receives from U.S. authorities and of a recent “explosion” in their use. New York lawmakers introduced a bill to forbid geofence warrants because of concerns they could be used to target protesters, and, in light of Google’s transparency report, some civil society organizations are calling for them to be banned, too.

Technology company transparency matters, as this example shows. Transparency about governmental and company practices that affect users’ speech, access to information, and privacy from government surveillance online help us understand and check the ways in which tech companies and governments wield power and impact people’s human rights. 

Policymakers are increasingly proposing transparency measures as part of their efforts to regulate tech companies, both in the United States and around the world. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about transparency when it comes to technology companies like social networks, messaging services, and telecommunications firms? A new report from CDT, Making Transparency Meaningful: A Framework for Policymakers, maps and describes four distinct categories of technology company transparency:

  1. Transparency reports that provide aggregated data and qualitative information about moderation actions, disclosures, and other practices concerning user generated content and government surveillance; 
  2. User notifications about government demands for their data and moderation of their content; 
  3. Access to data held by intermediaries for independent researchers, public policy advocates, and journalists; and 
  4. Public-facing analysis, assessments, and audits of technology company practices with respect to user speech and privacy from government surveillance. 

Different forms of transparency are useful for different purposes or audiences, and they also give rise to varying technical, legal, and practical challenges. Making Transparency Meaningful is designed to help policymakers and advocates understand the potential benefits and tradeoffs that come with each form of transparency. This report addresses key questions raised by proposed legislation in the United States and Europe that seeks to mandate one or more of these types of transparency and thereby hold tech companies and governments more accountable….(More)”.