Transparency reporting emerged in the mid 2000s as an industry response to growing concerns from civil society about the relationship between internet companies and the government. From disclosing data on dissidents in China to enabling mass surveillance by the FBI, cooperation with government demands for information was seen as a real threat to privacy and freedom of expression online by academics, activists and others. Transparency reporting was proposed as a way for internet companies to openly share information on government requests for user data and content removal, thereby enabling public transparency and accountability. In April 2010, Google became the first internet company to publish a formal transparency report, then called the “Government Requests tool,” covering governmental demands for both user data and content removal.
Transparency reporting was not widely adopted by internet companies until 2013, when the global surveillance disclosures by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden were publicized. Amid public outcry and concern about government surveillance, the number of transparency reports exploded by 367% within the year, and public transparency reporting became an industry standard for both internet and telecommunications companies. Non-profit organizations established standards and rankings for reports to encourage adoption, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s “Who Has Your Back” report and the Ranking Digital Rights’ “Corporate Accountability Index.” The pressure on industry also led to a number of legal challenges against the U.S government, which ultimately resulted in the expansion of transparency reporting for national security requests in January 2014.
In the years since, transparency reports have expanded in scope beyond government requests to cover other categories of information relating to digital privacy and free expression, such as content removal, internet shutdowns, and intellectual property. Public demands for transparency have increasingly focused on companies’ own policies and content removal actions, not just requests from governments. In 2015, Etsy became the first company to release a “Policy Enforcement” report. The Santa Clara Principles, published in 2018, urged the widespread adoption of content moderation reporting by industry, creating a set of foundational guidelines for transparency and accountability.
Since 2010, approximately 70 internet and telecommunication companies have voluntarily released regular transparency reports. However, new and emerging global internet regulations increasingly contain mandatory reporting obligations. For example, Germany’s NetzDG, which came into effect in 2017, requires social media companies over a certain size to publish bi-annual transparency reports on the processing of German removal requests for content that may violate German law. Other pending laws in Europe, such as the Digital Services Act, are likely to create robust transparency reporting obligations related to content removals by 2022-23.
Between continued public concern about the evolution of content policy and growing calls for reporting standardization, transparency reporting will remain a vital part of the conversation on online governance and enforcement. For trust and safety professionals, transparency reports will continue to be an important tool for increasing public accountability and building public legitimacy for company policies and enforcement decisions.