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Microsoft discloses requests from law enforcement agenies worldwide

Microsoft joined a handful of companies around the world in disclosing details about requests from law enforcement agencies for information about its customers’ practices.

Bogdan Cristel/Reuters/file

Microsoft joined a handful of companies around the world in disclosing details about requests from law enforcement agencies for information about its customers’ practices.

NEW YORK — Microsoft on Thursday disclosed for the first time the number of requests it had received from government law enforcement agencies for data on its hundreds of millions of customers around the world, joining the ranks of Google, Twitter, and other Web businesses that publish so-called transparency reports.

The report, which Microsoft said it planned to update every six months, showed that law enforcement agencies in five countries — Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, and the United States — accounted for 69 percent of the 70,665 requests the company received last year.

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In 80 percent of requests, Microsoft provided elements of what is called noncontent data, like an account holder’s name, sex, e-mail address, IP address, country of residence, and dates and times of data traffic.

In 2.1 percent of requests, the company disclosed the actual content of a communication, like the subject heading of an e-mail, the contents of an ­e-mail, or a picture stored on SkyDrive, its cloud computing service.

Microsoft said it disclosed the content of communications in 1,544 cases to law enforcement agencies in the United States, and in 14 cases to agents in Brazil, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand.

“Government requests for online data are like the dark matter of the Internet,’’ said Eva Galperin, a global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, which has campaigned for greater disclosure.

Galperin said that even with Microsoft’s disclosures, fewer than 10 companies published the extent of their cooperation with law enforcement agencies.

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‘‘Only a few companies report this, but they are only a very small percent of the online universe,’’ she said, ‘‘so any one company that joins the disclosure effort is good news. The faster this becomes a standard for all Web businesses, the better.’’

The law enforcement requests concerned users of Microsoft services including Hotmail,, SkyDrive, Skype, and Xbox Live, where people are typically asked to enter their personal details to obtain service.

Google was the first major Web business, in 2010, to report the number of legal requests it had received for information. Since then, Twitter, LinkedIn and some smaller companies have also begun reporting, but big businesses like Apple and Yahoo have not.

Microsoft also resisted at first. In January, a group of more than 100 Internet activists and digital rights groups signed a petition asking the company to disclose its data-handling practices for Skype, the Internet voice and video service it bought in 2011.

But Microsoft did provide two types of detail in its report that rivals have not addressed in similar fashion. It described the reasons it had rejected some requests, and it listed separately by country how it had responded to requests for the content of communications and for noncontent data.

It also published separate information for Skype, which is based in Luxembourg and is subject to national and European Union laws.

In 4,713 cases last year, Microsoft­ disclosed administrative details of Skype accounts — like a user’s Skype ID, name, e-mail address, and billing information, as well as call records if a person subscribed to a Skype service that connects to a telephone number.

But Microsoft said it released no content from Skype transmissions last year. It has said that the peer-to-peer nature of Skype’s Internet conversations means the company does not store and has no access to past conversations.

Brad Smith, an executive vice president at Microsoft and the company’s general counsel, said that the number of requests Microsoft received last year covered only a tiny fraction of its huge customer base, which the company estimates is in the hundreds of millions.

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