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Vkontakte says it will reveal statistics about government requests for user data

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Russia's biggest social network has come under fire for collaborating with police in a ramped-up crackdown on irreverent Internet memes. After promising to introduce new privacy settings that will supposedly make it harder for law enforcement to monitor accounts and reposts, Vkontakte now says it will publish a transparency report about the Russian government's requests for user data. Representatives for the company outlined the plan to the BBC.

Vkontakte, Russia’s largest social network, says it will release statistics about government requests for user data, despite federal regulations enacted in January that bar companies from revealing information about “the concrete facts and content” of cooperation with the Federal Security Service. “We’re planning to make the process more transparent and share general statistics about [these] requests,” representatives for Vkontakte told the BBC.

It remains unclear what data the company can publish without violating the government’s new gag order, though it’s worth noting that federal officials have yet to codify penalties for disclosing such information.

In recent years (and especially in recent weeks), police officers have opened criminal cases against Russian Internet users, typically charging individuals with hate speech, extremism, offending religious views, or propagating Nazism. The vast majority of these criminal cases are filed against users of Vkontakte, which surrenders virtually all personal data, whenever requested by law enforcement, according to human rights activists.

The Agora human rights group says criminal cases against Russian Internet users rose from 298 in 2016 to 411 in 2017. Most of these people were prosecuted for various forms of “hate speech” because of posts, reposts, “likes,” and comments shared on Vkontakte. Activists at Agora say the social network regularly hands over users’ real names, telephone numbers, and home addresses, in addition to information about when they access the service.

In late July, police announced criminal charges against two Barnaul Internet users, Maria Motuznaya and Daniil Markin, because of memes they shared online. On August 14, as many as 200 people in Barnaul attended a rally against the police harassment of Internet users.

On August 6, Vkontakte’s parent company, Mail.ru, publicly condemned these prosecutions. Five days later, Vkontakte announced new privacy settings that will restrict the visibility of reposts to the users who author reposted content, and allow users to hide their accounts completely from everyone except confirmed friends.

“We very carefully review the validity of every [government] request,” Vkontakte told the BBC. “We do not respond to requests that don’t correspond to the law. Moreover, there have been cases where the legality of the request was disputed in court.”

According to corporate transparency reports, American tech companies receive hundreds of requests every year from Russian state officials for user data. Apple is unique for receiving and satisfying the most requests: granting more than 86 percent of 677 requests in 2017. That same year, Google received 648 requests from the Russian government, but surrendered user data less than 10 percent of the time. Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Tumblr said they almost never turned over user data to the Russian authorities.