From A to Z: Whistleblowing vs. social networking

Mark Zuckerberg was Time's 2010 Person of the Year. Julian Assange, the popular choice of Time readers, faces simultaneous criminal charges from two nations. Some might say they are very similar at least as regards privacy, while others see almost nothing in common between them.

The activities of Julian Assange's WikiLeaks have been called espionage, terrorism, and whistleblowing. The operations of Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook have been called spying, stalking, and social networking. Many of the criticisms leveled at each group sound much like those they've leveled at each other, and both have also been hailed as noble, visionary endeavors. Julian Assange sits in the UK waiting to see whether he will be extradited to the United States on espionage charges for WikiLeaks' involvement in "cablegate" (a massive leak of US diplomatic messages) or to Sweden for sexual assault charges he claims are baseless. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg's face graces the cover of Time and he has impromptu meetings with his fan Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI.

They are not unaware of each other.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been an active critic of authoritarian secrecy for years. He was a vocal member of cypherpunk mailing lists, created WikiLeaks as a way to undermine attempts to deceive the public, and wrote the first open source port scanner software called Strobe as well as a deniable encryption program called Rubberhose. His views on the differences between himself and Zuckerberg are bluntly stated:

What are the differences between Mark Zuckerberg and me? I give private information on corporations to you for free, and I'm a villain.

Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he's Man of the Year.

As if that was not a harsh enough indictment, Assange also said, as quoted in The Next Web:

Facebook is the most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented.

Combine these two statements Julian Assange has made about Zuckerberg and his social media empire on the Web -- and yes, it is an empire, with "like" button colonies springing up all over other people's websites -- and you might get the impression that Zuckerberg is running the world's largest, most successful, and most popularly loved domestic intelligence operation for the federal government. This impression could easily color your reading of a passage in the Time magazine article declaring Zuckerberg the Person of the Year 2010, describing a scene in the Facebook "Aquarium" conference room:

The door opened, and a distinguished-looking gray-haired man burst in — it's the only way to describe his entrance — trailed by a couple of deputies. He was both the oldest person in the room by 20 years and the only one wearing a suit. He was in the building, he explained with the delighted air of a man about to secure ironclad bragging rights forever, and he just had to stop in and introduce himself to Zuckerberg: Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, pleased to meet you.

They shook hands and chatted about nothing for a couple of minutes, and then Mueller left. There was a giddy silence while everybody just looked at one another as if to say, What the hell just happened?

After reading those Assange quotes[1], it might seem like the director of the FBI was personally thanking the founder of Facebook for making his job so much easier. The infamous first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (the length of whose tenure as director of the FBI and its predecessor the Bureau of Investigation is still longer than the entire rest of the time the FBI has existed) never had it so easy -- right? Of course, the world is not so simple and black-and-white as all that. Ultimately, while the massive social networking site is clearly a powerful tool for aggregating the effects of rampant privacy abdication, it is in fact abdication rather than violation that is the real problem. "Facebook is not the real privacy threat"; we are.

This does not mean that Facebook is innocent in all things. In some respects, it tricks us into giving up our privacy. It does this not just by using the seductive siren call of social networking, but also by giving us a directly and intentionally inaccurate impression of our privacy. To the extent that Facebook staff members believe what they are saying when they say they do no such thing, they are lying -- to themselves. Policies change so that information that was under our control before can now be aggregated by others we label "friends" for the whole world to see. Interface and feature updates come with Facebook automatically resetting all privacy options for our profiles to much less protective configurations. While Facebook is not nearly as clear about it as a truly conscientious custodian of personal information should be, we should be cynical enough to realize that the corporation is exposing data about us to its "partners" in ways we would not approve if directly asked.

Let us take a step back and examine that visit by FBI Director Mueller one more time. In that same Time article, on page nine, we find this:

Mueller's visit wasn't a one-off. He was there because Zuckerberg has a better database than he does. Facebook has a richer, more intimate hoard of information about its citizens than any nation has ever had, and the U.S. government sometimes comes knocking, subpoena in hand, looking to borrow some. "We feel like it's our responsibility to push back on that stuff," Zuckerberg says, "so oftentimes someone will come with a subpoena, and we'll go to court and say, 'We don't think this is enough.' Ultimately I think this stuff gets used for good."

This reads a little like a common pattern in the political life of Thomas Jefferson, but set on its head. Anyone who reads much about Thomas Jefferson -- who goes just a bit beyond the lightly salted pablum of high school American History classes -- may run across a pattern of behavior where the man elucidated high ideals and argued both passionately and persuasively for them then, when confronted by men he held in some esteem who disagreed, he crumpled like a cheap suit. It happened over and over again, even when his opposition could not present a meaningful argument that effectively countered any of his own arguments. The Declaration of Independence contains nothing that directly undermines the practice of holding slaves because Jefferson took it out when others opposed him on it. The US Constitution -- on whose construction he consulted from afar, acting as US ambassador to France -- contains a basis for copyright and patent law in part because Isaac McPherson and others convinced him to let his discomfort over government granted monopolies fall by the wayside.

Zuckerberg, on the other hand, seems to follow similar behavioral patterns for diametrically opposed reasons. Where Jefferson held high ideals then crumbled under pressure, Zuckerberg appears to begin with the idea that he should just give government access to whatever it wants, but feels pressured to offer token resistance first. In the end, it looks like the major difference between the crusade to eliminate the barriers of secrecy surrounding governments and corporations and the crusade to eliminate the barriers of secrecy keeping people apart is that Assange understands the difference between secrecy and privacy, while Zuckerberg does not.

Perhaps Julian Assange was right about Facebook, after all.


1: Julian Assange is not the only person commenting about the two of them and their most famous projects. Mark Zuckerberg has commented on the WikiLeaks flap, too, but his commentary comes off as much more complimentary:

Technology usually wins with these things.

It almost reads like a paraphrase of John Gillmore's famous statement in Time magazine, 1993:

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.