The US government is taking your Facebook data. But it doesn't stop there

"The problem is global and endemic. Nobody has clean hands."

With the glowing media attention the USA is currently enjoying, it would be very easy indeed to use Facebook’s first Global Government Requests Report to further stick the boot into an increasingly murky-looking administration.

In the stats released by the social network, America’s total volume of data requests dwarfs any other country’s, with between 11,000 and 12,000 requests involving up to 21000 individual accounts made during the first half of 2013.

But although tempting, it’s perhaps unwise to let recent outrage over NSA surveillance colour one’s judgement of the numbers. While the USA’s demands for Facebook data have been unsurprisingly vast, that’s no reason to exculpate other countries from their participation in the cultural tug-of-war over citizen's data.

The clue is in the name of Facebook’s report – specifically, the word global.

Even a cursory bout of cigarette-packet mathematics (see table below) reveals that, when the report’s data is viewed in the light of figures on national population and Facebook usage, America is not alone in its appetite for information on its citizens.

In terms of total requests made per million Facebook users in a country, for example, Germany is some way ahead, with 75.4 compared to the USA’s 69.3. In terms of fruitful requests per million users, the US leads the pack at 54.7 – but not by much: the UK manages 40.8.

Ben Werdmuller, CTO of US-based startup Latakoo and a proponent of the indieweb movement, which aims to challenge the data monopoly of the web giants, thinks that to chalk the Facebook figures up to the excesses of American national security is to ignore a wider problem.    

"Any finger-pointing at any one nation amounts to scapegoating. The problem is global and endemic. Nobody has clean hands. In Silicon Valley, we have to accept that the systems we've built are empowering both governments and corporations to more easily violate our privacy."

With a great volume of data, as Spiderman once memorably said, comes great responsibility.

Of course, it’s hard to go much further in analysing Facebook’s report than to acknowledge that there’s a problem, and that it’s a widespread one. This is hardly breaking news. The problem is that this report, while interesting, is simply a necessary PR response to a media storm over data security – its language is vague, and it is short on specifics.  

In particular, it would be very interesting to know how the total requests by country break down into those relating to criminal matters, and those relating to issues of national security. Such data, I suspect, could once again put the American statistics in a new light.

On this point, however, I’ll let Facebook have (nearly) the last word:

"While we view this compilation as an important first report, it will not be our last. In coming reports, we hope to be able to provide even more information about the requests we receive from law enforcement authorities."

We will be waiting eagerly.

Facebook's logo. Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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