Among Dropbox’s many announcements this week was the news that it had added former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to its Board of Directors. Many reacted in horror that a company that stores all manner of files, many of which are likely sensitive, would bring in one of the architects of the United States’ surveillance apparatus following the 9/11 attacks. (There’s also that whole “Iraq War” atrocity that Rice contributed to, though that’s a different discussion). Journalist Ed Bott said it “might be the most tone-deaf move by a big Silicon Valley company in as long as I can remember.”
Others like blogging pioneer Dave Winer weren’t so quick to criticize the appointment:
It’s only tone-deaf if you were expecting a different tune. I think it’s refreshingly honest and open. It tells the users that it’s very important for Dropbox to have a way to communicate with governments at a very high level. Someone has to rep the company at meetings that are now taking place regularly where new rules are being created to govern the Internet. Private rules that we may not know anything about.
Winer’s perspective echoes what AOL co-founder Steve Case said at our last PandoMonthly event in New York: That for the next generation of Web companies to succeed, they’ll need to work with governments, not against them. “It requires a different skill set with more partnership, more understanding of government and policy,” Case says. “To have a significant impact, you need to understand that government’s going to play a role. More than you’d like.”
From this perspective, the addition of Rice to the board could help Dropbox better navigate the thorny privacy issues that came to light after Edward Snowden leaked a trove of classified NSA documents. In many cases, from the NSA’s deliberate attempts to weaken encryption to its infiltration of Google and Yahoo’s data center links, the government often has the means to access data with or without these companies’ knowledge. By creating more opportunities for direct dialogue between the government and Dropbox, Rice’s appointment may potentially allow the interests of Dropbox’s customers to play a greater role in discussions over when data should be turned over to authorities and when it should not. Furthermore, to consider this a threat to the notion that the Internet is open and free from government intrusion is to assume that the Internet ever operated this way — an idea that many Silicon Valley lifers like Marc Andreessen* say is a fairy tale at best.
Of course, it’s perfectly valid to argue that of all the government insiders to add to your board, Rice’s history as a proponent of warrantless wiretapping doesn’t make her an ideal candidate. But no amount of public outrage is likely to compel Dropbox to reverse the appointment, at least not anytime soon. Kicking Rice off the board now would make management and the existing board look weak and incompetent. As it nears a likely IPO in 2015, perceptions of managerial incompetence will hurt the company far more than public outcry, which usually dissipates as the crowd moves on to some fresher outrage.
None of this is to suggest that because government intrusion into tech companies has been commonplace for years that it should be allowed to continue unchecked. On the contrary, the presence of a powerful government insider with a seat at the table will at least give Dropbox a voice in discussions over surveillance, discussions that until recently have taken place largely in the dark.
(*Marc Andreessen is a personal investor in Pando)