"I think it's pretty safe to assume that all of these companies are receiving requests from the government for information," Reitman said, noting that not a single one had responded to say it simply hadn't received any requests. "We chose those companies which we felt had the greatest quantity of data about consumers."
An amicus brief filed by online privacy researchers on behalf of the WikiLeaks supporters suggests that consumers are often in the dark about privacy policies. A 2007 study at UC Berkeley found that only 1.4 percent of participants reported reading user license agreements often and thoroughly, while 66.2 percent admitted to rarely reading them.
The Guardian contacted all 12 companies for comment, but only received responses from Facebook and Microsoft.
"Like all service providers, we must respond to lawful requests to provide information," a Microsoft spokesperson wrote via e-mail. "We take our responsibility to protect our customers' privacy very seriously, and we have specific processes in place when responding to such requests. Additionally, we participate in the Global Network Initiative through which we have agreed to certain principles in responding to government demands." The Global Network Initiative was recently slammed by a Forbes columnist for having "only barely functioned" since its creation in 2008.
Facebook's Simon Axten responded via e-mail: "We scrutinize every request for legal sufficiency before responding and employ a dedicated team of [certified information privacy professionals] to manage these requests. We never disclose user content in response to U.S. legal process unless that process is a search warrant that has been reviewed and signed by a judge."
Axten noted that Facebook had fought for user privacy against civil litigants and resisted all requests from private parties. Most government user data requests directed at Facebook aren't related to freedom of speech, but to crimes such as child kidnapping.
"I've heard that argument from them before," Reitman noted when asked to respond. "It would be easier to understand if ... they were transparent about publishing their law enforcement guidelines and producing regular reports."