Policy


GitHub contributes to UN free speech expert's report on content moderation

From fake news to copyright infringement, content moderation—and who should do what to address it—is all over the news and policymaking arenas. Although we are a platform that hosts primarily code uploaded by developers, many of those discussions are relevant to GitHub.

Earlier this year, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, visited GitHub’s headquarters to discuss how content moderation on our platform affects free expression. His visit was part of his research for a report he will present to the United Nations Human Rights Council for its adoption in June. To gather views from governments, companies, and others, Special Rapporteur Kaye issued a call for written submissions with questions on topics ranging from how companies handle takedown requests to what role automation plays (and should play) in content moderation.

In GitHub’s response to the Special Rapporteur’s questions:

  • We walk through our processes for handling takedown requests (government takedowns and copyright infringement notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)) and we describe how we work to reduce abuse on our platform without unnecessarily chilling speech. For instance, we geo-block content if it’s not illegal globally and we consider the right of fair use in handling DMCA takedown notices.

  • We highlight how we promote transparency, for example by involving our community in the development of the policies that govern use of our platform and by posting takedown notices in public repos in real time. We explain that users can appeal removal of content and that we’ll provide reasons for our decision.

  • We note that our approach is consistent with international human rights law—specifically Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which establish the right to free expression and prohibition of propaganda and hate speech. We also explain that we designed our Community Guidelines to protect the interests of marginalized groups and encourage users to respect each other.

  • Finally, we explain that we open source our site policies (we’re GitHub, after all!) and hope that our approach gets recognized as a best practice that other platforms adopt.

Contributing to Special Rapponteur Kaye’s report is one way we’re working to define and build on best practices for platform moderation. We also directly participate in the discourse about content moderation, for example at last week’s Conference Moderation Summit and this week at RightsCon. In addition, we continue to advocate for approaches to content moderation that promote transparency and free expression while limiting abuse.

We thank the Special Rapporteur for his thoughtful attention to this timely issue and we look forward to reading his report!

2017 Transparency Report

At GitHub, we believe that maintaining transparency is an essential part of our commitment to our users. For the past three years we’ve published transparency reports to better inform the public about GitHub’s disclosure of user information and removal of content.

GitHub promotes transparency by:

  • Directly engaging our users in developing our policies
  • Explaining our reasons for making different policy decisions
  • Notifying users when we need to restrict content, with our reasons
  • Allowing users to appeal removal of their content
  • Publicly posting takedown requests (requests to remove content) in real time in a public repository

We hope our transparency report will interest GitHub users and contribute to broader discourse on platform governance. If you’re unfamiliar with GitHub terminology, please refer to the GitHub Glossary.

In this report, we fill you in on 2017 stats for:

  • Requests to disclose user information
    • Subpoenas
    • Court orders
    • Search warrants
    • National security orders
  • Requests to remove or block user content
    • Government takedown requests
    • Takedown notices for alleged copyright infringement under the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)

New in 2017 are:

  • Cross-border data requests
  • Accounts and projects affected by government takedown requests

Requests

Requests to disclose user information

GitHub’s Guidelines for Legal Requests of User Data explain how we handle legally authorized requests, including law enforcement requests, subpoenas, court orders, search warrants, and national security orders.

A subpoena (a written order to compel someone to testify on a particular subject) does not require review by a judge or magistrate. By contrast, a search warrant or court order does require judicial review.

As we note in our guidelines:

  • We only release information to third-parties when the appropriate legal requirements have been satisfied
  • We require a subpoena to disclose certain kinds of user information, like a name, an email address, or an IP address associated with an account
  • We require a court order or search warrant for all other kinds of user information, like user access logs or the contents of a private repository
  • We will notify affected users about any requests for their account information, unless prohibited from doing so by law or court order

In 2017, GitHub received 51 legal requests to disclose user information, including 42 subpoenas (30 criminal and 12 civil), three court orders, and six search warrants. These include every request we received for user information, regardless of whether we disclosed information or not. Not all of these came from law enforcement; one came from a U.S. government agency, and 12 came from civil litigants requesting information about another party. We also received two cross-border data requests, as described in the next section. Of the 51 requests received, we produced information 43 times.

legal-requests-user-information-2017

Cross-border data requests

Governments outside the U.S. can make cross-border data requests for user information through the U.S. Department of Justice via a mutual legal assistance treaty (MLAT) or similar form of cooperation. Of the 51 requests for legal information described above, GitHub received two requests (one court order and one search warrant) from the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of non-U.S. government agencies through the MLAT process.

Note legislative developments could lead to increased cross-border data requests and a need for more oversight.

Non-disclosure orders (gag orders)

In many cases, legal requests are accompanied by a court order that prevents us from notifying users about the request due to a non-disclosure order, commonly referred to as a gag order. In 2017, of the 43 requests for which we produced information, we did so without being able to notify users 35 times. This represents a considerable increase from last year and continues a rising trend, up from 27 non-disclosure orders in 2016, seven in 2015, and four in 2014.

user-notifications-legal-requests-2017

We did not disclose user information in response to every request we received. In some cases, the request was not specific enough, and the requesting party withdrew the request after we asked for some clarification. In other cases, we received very broad requests, and we were able to limit the scope of the information we provided.

disclosure-user-information-2017

National security orders

We are very limited in what we can say about national security letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders. The U.S. Department of Justice has issued guidelines that only allow us to report information about these types of requests in ranges of 250, starting with zero. As the chart below shows, in 2017, we received 0-249 notices in 2017, affecting 0-249 accounts.

national-security-orders-2017

Requests to remove or block user content (takedowns)

Below, we describe two main categories of requests we receive to remove or block user content: government takedown requests and DMCA takedown notices.

Government takedowns

From time to time, GitHub receives requests from governments to remove content that they judge to be unlawful in their local jurisdiction (government takedown requests). When we block content at the request of a government, we post the official request that led to the block in a publicly accessible repository. Regarding our process, when we receive a request, we confirm whether:

  • The request came from an official government agency
  • An official sent an actual notice identifying the content
  • An official specified the source of illegality in that country

If we believe the answer is yes to all three, we block the content in the narrowest way we see possible. For instance, we would restrict the removal only to the jurisdictions where the content is illegal. We then post the notice in our government takedowns repository, creating a public record where people can see that a government asked GitHub to take down content.

In 2017, GitHub received eight requests—all from Russia—resulting in eight projects being taken down or blocked (all or part of six repositories, one gist, and one website taken down).

DMCA takedowns

Most content removal requests we receive are submitted under the DMCA, which provides a method by which copyright holders may request GitHub to take down content they believe is infringing. The user who posted the content can then send a counter notice to reinstate content when the alleged infringer states that the takedown was erroneous. Each time we receive a complete DMCA takedown notice, we redact any personal information and post it to a public DMCA repository.

Our DMCA Takedown Policy explains more about the DMCA process, as well as the differences between takedown notices and counter notices. It also sets out the requirements for complete requests, which include that the person submitting the notice take into account fair use.

Takedown notices received and processed

In 2017, GitHub received and processed 1,380 DMCA complete takedown notices and 55 complete counter notices or retractions, for a total of 1,435. In the case of takedown notices, this is the number of separate notices where we took down content or asked our users to remove content.

dmca-totals-table-2017

The notices, counter notices, retractions, and reversals we processed look like this (by month):

dmca-monthly-takedowns-counter-retract-2017

Incomplete DMCA takedown notices received

From time to time, we receive incomplete or insufficient notices regarding copyright infringement. Because these notices don’t result in us taking down content, we don’t currently keep track of how many incomplete notices we receive, or how often our users are able to work out their issues without sending a takedown notice.

Projects affected by DMCA takedown requests

Often, a single takedown notice can encompass more than one project. So, we looked at the total number of projects, such as repositories, gists, and Pages sites, that we had taken down due to DMCA takedown requests in 2017. The projects we took down, and the projects that remained down after we processed retractions and counter notices, looked like this (by month):

dmca-take-down-stay-down-2017

Based on DMCA data we’ve compiled over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in DMCA notices received. This isn’t surprising given that the GitHub community also continues to grow over time. When we overlay the number of DMCA notices with the approximate number of registered users over the same period of time, we can see that the growth in DMCA notices correlates with the growth of the community.

increase-dmca-takedowns-2017

Conclusion

Transparency reports by internet platforms have served to shine a light on censorship and surveillance. The very first of the genre, Google’s 2010 Report, stated “greater transparency will lead to less censorship.” In 2018, platforms are under far greater pressure to censor than they were then, and transparency reports have potential to instead show how willing platforms are to cooperate with censors. More thorough transparency can mitigate this risk—particuarly if platforms, users, advocates, academics, and others interested in free speech, privacy, law enforcement, and more use the data to engage in shared conversations that acknowledge common goals.

As the beginning of this report reflects, GitHub sees transparency reports as necessary, but not sufficient, for good governance. We look forward to continuing to engage in discussions with those stakeholders, including our users, as we strive to promote transparency on our platform.

We hope you enjoyed this year’s report and encourage you to let us know if you have suggestions for additions to future reports.

GitHub open sources its Statement Against Modern Slavery and Child Labor

As part of our work to open source policies for other companies to adapt and use, and in accordance with the UK Modern Slavery Act, we’ve included our Statement Against Modern Slavery and Child Labor in the latest round of updates to our Site Policy repository.

While modern slavery (slavery, forced or compulsory labor, trafficking, servitude, and workers who are imprisoned, indentured, or bonded) and child labor are not typically associated with software, businesses in all industries are increasingly recognizing that there are possibilities for these abuses to occur in their own labor force or through their sourcing practices.

We have no reason to believe modern slavery or child labor is occurring in our business or supply chain, and we have outlined our policies and due diligence processes to help ensure it won’t happen in the future. Given the abhorrent nature of modern slavery and child labor, prohibiting these atrocities in our business and supply chain is a logical and important commitment for GitHub to make.

While publishing a statement is a requirement for certain businesses under UK law, our statement goes beyond the requirements of that law by holding our suppliers to our statement too. Our statement also highlights our partnership with the FairHotel Program, through which we encourage GitHub employees to choose hotels where workers are paid fair wages, receive adequate benefits, and have a voice on the job. To ensure our commitment to preventing modern slavery and child labor in our business and supply chain, we’ll publish a new statement annually, building on our previous statements.

GitHub is excited to participate in this year’s RightsCon on May 16-18, where we will discuss this statement and other human rights-oriented aspects of our work. Look for us there!

EU policymakers respond to developers on upload filters

Both the EU Council and EU Parliament heard developers who responded to our call to action on the EU’s proposal to require copyright filters for uploaded content. Upload filters raise a number of efficacy, speech, and privacy concerns for software developers and the public. Although upload filters remain an unsettled part of the debate, EU policymakers are making more concerted attempts to narrow the scope of who filters would apply to.

In their latest proposals, Council and Parliament each exclude “non-for-profit open source software developing platforms.” Despite their intentions, neither the Council nor Parliament has yet to effectively protect open source software development because most open source software development is built on platforms, like GitHub, that aren’t not-for-profit.

DIGITALEUROPE, an organization representing the digital technology industry in Europe, emphasized this point in its recent letter to the EU Council:

The scope of Article 13 remains far too broad and out of proportion with its stated goals. We are not aware of any calls to address a value gap in relation, for example, to open source software repositories, yet such services are only excluded if they operate on a non-profit basis (which is not the case for many such service providers).

On Friday, the Council considered adopting its current version of the copyright proposal, but was unable to reach agreement. Two of the main sticking points were Article 11 and Article 3, each of which could affect developers.

Article 11 would create a new right for press publishers, sometimes referred to as “ancillary copyright,” and would enable them to require a license to post the snippets of text that describe links. Requiring this kind of permission would add overhead to anyone developing software for the web. It also would run counter to exceptions to copyright that allow copying for certain limited purposes, such as to comment on a copyrighted work.

Article 3 proposes a copyright exception for text and data mining in the EU, but only by research organizations for scientific purposes on a not-for-profit basis. Text and data mining is critical to AI and machine learning, and in the US is considered fair use. Article 3’s narrow exception would undermine the future of software development in the EU, including the EU’s own efforts to promote AI.

These articles (upload filters, ancillary copyright, and text and data mining) remain the most controversial parts of the Copyright Directive and each potentially affects developers. Discussions continue in Council, which hopes to agree on a proposal soon, and in Parliament, which currently plans to vote on its version of the proposal in late June.

There is still time to help policymakers effectively protect software development in the EU and it’s still important for those policymakers to hear from developers directly. Write to us to find out ways to engage with EU policymakers to protect software development!

The fight progresses as the net neutrality deadline approaches

When the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published its repeal of net neutrality regulations in the Federal Register on February 22, the U.S. Congress had 60 legislative days to disapprove of the FCC order. Approximately half of that time is up. To learn more about how this timeline works—and why the pressure is on—check out the following resources:

Meanwhile, the quest to find one more vote to move the process forward in the Senate continues. Write Congress to aid in the search.

On May 2, small businesses will deliver a letter to Congress, urging disapproval of the FCC order. The first week of May is Small Business Week, and Congresspeople take business owners from their districts very seriously. If you represent a small business in the U.S., sign the letter.

Meanwhile, at least 33 U.S. states and many cities have enacted or have pending actions to protect net neutrality. California is considering passing S.B. 822, the strongest and most comprehensive set of net neutrality protections in the country. GitHub joined almost 60 startups in a letter of support for this bill, which has its second committee hearing tomorrow. If you’re in California, tell state legislators to protect net neutrality by supporting S.B. 822.

Not in the U.S.? Help spread the word about the fight for net neutrality, or learn more about and get involved in the most pressing open internet issues in your country.

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