A report issued this week by British wireless giant Vodafone contends that many international governments block access to content on telecommunications networks or seek network access for the purpose of monitoring or intercepting phone calls, text messages and e-mails in the interest of national security or censoring communications that are deemed a threat to government power or social order.
With direct or indirect operations in 50 countries, Vodafone ranks as the world’s second-largest provider of wireless telecommunications services. According to Vodafone, the company’s second annual Law Enforcement Disclosure Report “encompasses all of the 28 local operating businesses under our direct control in which we have received a lawful demand for assistance from a law enforcement agency or government authority between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 2015.” (The U.S. is not included in the report as Vodafone has no direct operations in this country.) Vodafone divided the government demands into two categories: (1) requests for data, such as call lists, web search history, and information on individual subscribers, which involve no direct access to content, and (2) direct government or law enforcement interventions that include call and message tracking. During the study period, Italy tallied the highest number of Category 1 requests (866,578) for communications data, followed by Hungary (76,530) and Spain (43,537). Spain also recorded the highest number of Category 2 interceptions (22,013) although most countries declined to reveal the exact number or forbade Vodafone to disclose it.
In most countries, Vodafone said it “maintains full operational control over the technical infrastructure used to enable lawful interception upon receipt of an agency or authority demand.” In certain countries covered by the report, however, Vodafone noted that the law provides governments with “direct access to an operator’s network, bypassing any form of operational control over lawful interception on the part of the operator.” Vodafone also observed that certain countries “have laws which enable agencies . . . to require telecommunications operators to prevent access to certain content or websites” and that such laws can sometimes extend to telecom services as when the Egyptian government forced all operators in January 2011 to temporarily shut down their networks. Adding that “messaging services and social networks are familiar targets” for such takedowns, Vodafone observed that “actions of this nature rarely prove effective . . . given the dynamic adaptability of some Internet applications and protocols.”