Mark Zuckerberg isn’t happy about the National Security Agency’s reported attempts to impersonate Facebook’s servers, and he isn’t afraid to call President Obama and say so, which he announced in a post on his personal Facebook account Thursday: “The US government,” he wrote, “should be the champion for the internet, not a threat.”
It’s possible that Zuckerberg genuinely believes in the idea of an open Web. But it’s also a fact that Facebook can’t operate without the perception of a free Internet, and that means the company’s arguments are about self preservation first, and ideology second. The NSA isn’t just threatening civil liberties or possibly breaking laws — it’s threatening Facebook’s bottom line.
Facebook was built on the systematic erosion of personal privacy. It makes money by taking its users’ information and using it to sell advertisements. If those users don’t trust that the stuff they’re sharing on Facebook won’t end up in the government’s hands, they might share less information (which limits Facebook’s ability to tailor ads), or visit the service less often (and that limits its ability to display ads). Facebook’s business model can’t abide that.
This means that Facebook must publicly advocate for its users’ privacy — or at least the ability to tell its users how much the government is invading their privacy — while it privately works to gather every piece of personal information it can possibly use to sell another advertisement.
Reactions from around the Web
Time notes the threat the NSA revelations represent to US-based tech companies:
It’s not hard to understand why the top U.S. Internet companies are vehemently protesting the government’s secret surveillance programs. Silicon Valley executives frequently tout their belief in idealistic principles like free speech, transparency and privacy. But it would be naive to think that they also aren’t deeply concerned about the impact of the NSA revelations on the bottom line.
Glenn Greenwald tweets about Zuckerberg’s ability to call Obama in the first place:
The ease with which Mark Zuckerberg can apparently get Obama on the phone when he wants is fascinating [...]
Human Rights Watch explains why tech companies need to support surveillance reform:
Companies should press for meaningful disclosure about the scope and scale of government surveillance and their role in it. They also need to support laws and policies, including changes to surveillance laws, to protect their customers’ privacy. Ultimately, they need to show how they actually protect users from government spying.
The Obama administration needs to recognize and mitigate the serious economic risks of spying while trying to rebuild its credibility on Internet freedom. The July 9 hearing of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is a start, but much more is needed. More disclosure about the surveillance programs, more oversight, better laws, and a process to work with allied governments to increase privacy protections would be a start.
Pando weighs in
I wrote about Facebook’s ability to harvest data last July:
You’ve gotta give Facebook credit for its relentless drive to harvest and exploit the data of its billion users. Facebook knows where you are, where you’re from, the places you Like, the people you know, and what you’re interested in — as soon as it makes its way to wearable computers it’ll probably know when you’re sleeping or awake, like a technologically twisted version of Santa Claus.
I argued that GoSmart’s decision not to charge customers for Facebook usage is a threat to the free Internet in December:
The announcement is simply the latest in a series allowing Facebook users to access the social network for free. Sometimes this is accomplished through tools that allow “dumbphone” owners to access Facebook via text messages, sometimes it’s done through promotions like this one. Facebook is trying to convince new Internet users that it’s the most important aspect of the Web, and allowing them to access it without cost to themselves is the best way to do so.
But it is also a threat to the idea that Internet service providers shouldn’t be allowed to charge (or not charge, in this case) their customers based on the websites they visit.
I imagined a future where Facebook can use drones to gather information earlier this month:
Maybe the company could use aerial imagery to see that the paint on top of someone’s car has started to peel, a perfect opportunity for an auto shop to advertise its painting service. Perhaps it could monitor the users accessing its networks and determine who is spending time with whom without either of them ever mentioning it on Facebook. Then the company could use its vast databases to figure out that this person is spending more time with someone who isn’t his wife and use that information to advertise chocolates and lipstick remover. (It could also display an ad for a private investigator to the user’s wife — coincidentally, of course.)
[Illustration by Niv Bavarsky for Pando]