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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump