Vodafone answers call for greater transparency worldwide

Today, Vodafone announced it will ask governments in 25 countries for the right to disclose the number of demands it receives for wiretapping and customer data. According to a Guardian report, the UK-based telco aims to release the data in its annual sustainability report this June, and to follow with regular transparency reports.

Access welcomes the announcement, which signals greater respect for user privacy and pushback against government surveillance by one of the world’s largest telcos.

The news has been a long time coming: At Vodafone’s Annual General Meeting in 2012, we called on the company to release data on law enforcement requests. Our question to the company, endorsed by 10,000 members of the Access global community, asked, “Will Vodafone proactively commit to providing a transparency report in the UK and globally, detailing how many government requests it receives for customer data, how many it complies with, and your policy for handing over such data, including how you vet those requests?”

We are pleased that, with today’s announcement, Vodafone has made just that commitment.

Then, as now, Vodafone is an influential company in policy and practice for the entire sector. Its statement today will likely sway more telcos toward greater transparency.

With its announcement, Vodafone becomes the fourth major mobile network operator — and the first based in Europe — to declare its intention to release regular transparency reports. Responding to shareholder pressure, Verizon and AT&T made similar announcements last month, while smaller U.S. operator CREDO Mobile published the first-ever telco transparency report last week.

Today’s announcement marks another major first. With it, Vodafone’s report will be the first to not only promise data about requests received, but also information on the legal barriers to disclosure. This is the first instance of a transparency report, whether from a telco or ISP, to provide specific information, by country, on these limitations.

Vodafone’s Group Privacy Officer and Head of Legal for Privacy, Security & Content Standards Stephen Deadman said, “Where it is not lawful for us to disclose we will say so and we will say what provisions of law apply.” We commend the company for committing to release information on these legal obstacles to disclosure.

Demonstrating the complexities of transparency reporting in the telecoms sector, the Guardian article explains the extensive restrictions on disclosure imposed on Vodafone by British law, even compared with countries like Turkey, India, and South Africa. According to the Guardian’s report, British law currently prevents Vodafone from sharing even general information on wiretapping, as “under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), discussing the existence of a warrant is punishable by five years in prison.”

The move toward transparency is especially meaningful for Vodafone, which Access has long challenged to better account for its human rights impacts.

In January 2011, Vodafone and other operators in Egypt shut down the country’s internet and released propaganda at the government’s request. We questioned the company’s Board on this shutdown at their 2011 AGM, while presenting the Telco Action Plan to help the company prevent and mitigate future abuses. Since then, the company has made progress, having joined other telecoms in the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue on Freedom of Expression and Privacy; audited its privacy safeguards and the extent of government powers across its many areas of operation; and developed a policy on law enforcement assistance.

Transparency reporting by companies is the first step toward remedying abuses of user privacy, which often occur at the behest of governments. For this reason, Vodafone should release information about its compliance with government requests for user information even when a government releases a report of its own. This dual release approach provides two-way accountability. No government currently releases a transparency report up to the standards specified by the WeNeedToKnow coaliton.

Today’s announcement continues Vodafone’s arc toward greater accountability and increased trust among its more than 400 million users worldwide. Vodafone has paved the way for telcos globally to increase transparency through innovative reporting, to everyone’s benefit, and we anticipate more announcements like this one soon.