Facebook: Few requests from Qatar government to turn over user data

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Bhupinder Nayyar/Flickr

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Qatar’s government has shown limited interest in tracking down people through Facebook or blocking specific content shared on the platform, according to a new report by the social media giant.

Facebook said it received one request from local authorities to provide information about a user in the first half of 2015, down from two during the same period last year and requests for details about eight users during all of 2013.

Facebook said it rejected all those requests.

For illustrative purposes only.

For illustrative purposes only.

It added that the vast majority of the requests it receives from governments around the world relate to criminal cases, such as robberies or kidnappings, and can be for a user’s name, IP address, account content or other information.

“If a request appears to be deficient or overly broad, we push back hard and will fight in court, if necessary,” the US-based company said in a statement accompanying the data, adding that it does not give any government a “back door” to directly access user data.

Privacy questions

Facebook and other large technology and telecommunication companies, such as Google and Vodafone, have started to disclose in recent years the number of times they are asked by governments for customer information in attempts to show that they respect their users’ privacy.

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Yellow Filter/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Similar to Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain made 14 and 12 requests, respectively, over a comparable time period, all of which were turned down.

Kuwait, meanwhile, has asked for information about 26 Facebook users since mid-2013 and had received at least some data on one person.

Complete information about Oman and Saudi Arabia’s requests was unavailable.

While Qatar’s official requests to Facebook are low, this doesn’t necessarily mean that authorities are uninterested in what residents are doing online.

While little is known about how Qatar polices the internet, Wikileaks reported last year that the country’s State Security Bureau has been a customer of a German technology firm that sells software used to secretly monitor emails and other forms of online communication.

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European Parliament/Flickr

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Facebook was Qatar’s most popular social media platform in 2013, according to a report by the Dubai School of Government. However, it found that interest in Facebook was fading in Qatar in part because other sites were emerging.

More recently, a December 2014 study from ictQatar found that Facebook, along with WhatsApp, are still the most-used social media platforms in the country.

Though Qatar has been requesting less information about user data in recent years, there has been an overall increase in the requests for information globally.

In a blog post, Facebook said overall government requests for account data increased by 18 percent, from 35,051 requests in the second half of 2014 to 41,214 in the first half of this year.

More than half of those requests came from US law enforcement agencies, which collectively sought information on 26,579 users.

Blocked content

Meanwhile, unlike several of its Gulf neighbors, Qatar does not appear to have asked Facebook to block any content inside the country.

In contrast, the UAE asked that a total of 13 pieces of content be blocked because it was critical of the government or royal family. Saudi Arabia successfully had seven items banned for similar reasons.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Qatar and other Gulf countries use automated censorship tools that analyze the content of websites and categorizes URLs. These tools block websites deemed to contain obscene content, but have occasionally temporarily blocked popular blogging platforms and hotel booking sites by accident.

Typically, the country’s morality filters block material that could be considered pornographic or critical of Islam. But reports of controversial political sites being censored in recent years have been few and far between.

Still, there are also isolated cases of authorities targeting residents for material posted publicly, including a Facebook comment and a YouTube video.

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