Few requests for Facebook, Google user information from African governments in 2013

Digital Content

Relatively few African governments ' 8 to be exact ' requested user information or content removal from Facebook or Google last year.

Despite all the talk of online censorship in African nations (which should never be discounted), governments seem unlikely to officially reach out to popular platforms and request information about a user or information be removed. In the past, for example, we've found it striking that African nations that are known to prohibit defamatory online content didn't request the removal of content from Google. Perhaps the authorities are not aware of online defamation, maybe they don't know how to ask the owner for removal, or possibly they ask users to remove information before escalating to the companies that own the content. Also likely is that few criminal cases in Africa involve online media due the low rate of internet access. Possibly, authorities know that due to stringent legal standards, companies like Google or Facebook don't easily reveal information about their users. Worse yet, there are plenty of cases of bloggers and online journalists being arrested rather than having the chance to defend or delete the offensive content in question. Often, just the threat of online censorship is enough to prevent a greater pool of citizens to express their unfiltered opinions on the internet.

Global requests to have content removed from prominent platforms like Blogger, YouTube, and Facebook have steadily increased over the years. Yet requests to remove African content have been sporadic. Perhaps African authorities have been successful in forcing the removal of the content with their own hands, but we have not come across hundreds of such cases in the past year.

Just last week Facebook released its first ever Global Government Requests Report. The publication, covering 2013 in two halves, lists details about the 71 countries that requested information about Facebook users. In general, 62% of requests were fulfilled. As Facebook points out, they are critical of government requests and only give out information when there is a legal and factual basis for the request. Often, only a name is shared and nothing more, suggesting that governments may try and overstep their bounds.

Last year, 45 requests to Facebook came from 6 African governments. Facebook complied with one of these requests for information, from Cote d'Ivoire. In all, African requests constituted 0.1% of global requests (most were from USA). The relatively low share is likely due to the reasons discussed in the first paragraph; it is also due to the general lack of local African content posted online. There may be tens of thousands of removals requests from the USA, but there are also millions and millions of American websites.

The Facebook request breakdown for Africa:

    Botswana: 3 requests for a total of 7 users/accounts
    Egypt: 14 requests for 17 accounts
    Ivory Coast: 5 requests for 5 accounts
    South Africa: 17 requests for 13 accounts
    Sudan: 4 requests for 4 accounts
    Uganda: 2 request for 2 account

Google released a similar transparency report (its 9th) just prior to the Facebook numbers. Since 2009, Google has found the number of requests for information in criminal cases to have increased by 120%. The number of users has certainly grown by leaps and bounds in these five years, but governments are starting to make more requests as well.

Interestingly, the Google request for user information trends for 2013 were similar to what Facebook experienced. Requests came from 65 nations and were fulfilled 64% of the time. From Africa, there were 8 requests from 5 nations. Google only complied with Egypt's request to remove controversial YouTube videos. Not surprisingly given Africa's affinity toward Facebook, there were more requests by African authorities to obtain information about Facebook accounts than Google accounts. Still, most requests were denied.

The Google request breakdown for Africa:

    Egypt: 2 requests and 2 court orders from regulatory agencies to remove 105 YouTube videos that contained clips of the movie, 'Innocence of Muslims' prevailed.
    Ivory Coast: 2 requests about 2 users
    Mauritius: 1 court order to remove copyrighted information was not fulfilled.
    Nigeria: 2 requests about 2 users
    South Africa: 1 request from the Counter Intelligence Agency to remove a blog post that allegedly infringed copyright by criticizing a media release that the agency had issued was declined. There was 1 additional requests about 1 user

For comparison, in 2012, authorities from South Africa, Mauritius, Madagascar, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Morocco requested Google to remove information.

On the surface, an absence of African nations on these types of global reports suggests Africans either are not online, do not encounter online crimes at trial, or that they enjoy online freedom with limited government intervention. In reality, however, legal framework to protect the rights of millions of African internet users is lacking. As Google and Facebook recognize, governments often overstep their bounds when requesting user information.