Mirror, meet tech companies. Tech companies, meet mirror

Tech companies are rampant in their criticism of the NSA. But is there really any difference between the way they treat ordinary citizens and the way that the government does?

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Larry Page with Charlie Rose at TED 2014. TED 2014/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

I was moved by a tweet Microsoft's new CEO Satya Nadella emitted last week.

It read: "Spying is in the air in Redmond!"

At least, that's what my eyes saw, until I realized the 'y' was actually an 'r.'

I hope I can be excused.

It's been a week in which Microsoft reminded everyone, as quietly as it could, that if it suspects you're using a Microsoft account to do something it believes is legally against Microsoft's interest, the company's going to take a quick peek at your supposedly private e-mails. (And, who knows, at your supposedly private Photoshopped giraffe images too.)

Microsoft is one of many companies so very unhappy about the government's, um, liberal use of technology to achieve its ends.

This week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt met with the president to personally complain about the NSA and its activities.

This was brave. How could they be sure the room wasn't bugged? Perhaps, to give themselves a little security (just in case it affects their business), they made sure someone back in the Valley gave any government Gmails and Facebook messages a quick once-over before and after the meeting.

It would surely have been tempting.

In a TED 2014 interview with Charlie Rose, also last week, Google's CEO Larry Page declared that the government had done itself a great disservice.

Did he really mean that it had done Google a great disservice?

If it suddenly, finally strikes people that the Web and all its services are fundamentally insecure, then they might go back to other forms of communication. Like meeting in parks. And talking to each other in person.

Or, as the Wall Street Journal reports, people will take more active steps in an attempt to protect themselves from the excessive leakiness of the Web.

Oddly, Page's chat occurred on the same day that this headline appeared: "Google admits to data-mining student e-mails."

Which was shortly followed by a post from Michael Arrington wanting to tell the world "About that time Google spied on my Gmail."

Page, in all sincerity, told Rose that many companies are generally quite evil entities. It's just that Google, he insisted, isn't.

I suppose that's just another example of American exceptionalism.

He laid out his own vision of the future -- where self-driving cars fight heartily against all the roads and parking lots that allegedly blight urban landscapes.

He described how, at heart, Google's mission was to make machines intelligent.

Because we all look at our vacuum cleaners daily and shriek: "Why can't this damn thing run my meetings for me?!" We all stare down our cars and hiss: "Why can't you tell me the square root of 14,012, you halfwit?"

Honestly, my amplifiers are so stunningly stupid that I have no idea what to do with them.

It isn't too hard to reach the conclusion that Google and other tech companies face exactly the same (im)moral dilemmas as the government and react in many of the same ways.

Perhaps they even secretly wish they were the government (as long as they didn't have to sit in all those dull meetings with Messrs. Reid and McConnell.)

Again last week, the former head of Occupy Wall Street, now slumming it as an engineer at Google, suggested that Eric Schmidt should be the newly-appointed CEO of America.

Left unmentioned was whether he would have the power to hire and fire members of Congress. That might be genuine scientific progress.

It's hard not to be charmed by such a notion because Google already behaves like a socio-political entity. It's constantly telling us, often less than subtly, that it knows best.

Yes, we all want to wear glasses. We just don't realize it yet, because we're behind the curve drawn by Google.

Ultimately, though, the tech companies are betting that their so-called disruptive view of the future will begin to dictate to government.

What's odd is that they seem not to see that their own continued lapses in respect for privacy mirror their own criticisms of government behavior.

Their defense is that they are doing things for your own good -- a social and commercial good. But the government's argument is similar -- the idea of keeping you safe is good.

Perhaps no one should be surprised that the NSA claims that the tech companies knew about its activities all along, whether it's true or not.

The tech companies talk about the Open Web. The government talks about transparency. Once they've done that, they go about their business.

We're all in the same boats. And they're all being rowed by self-preservationists.

 

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