The laughable innocence of Facebook and Google (and us)

Isn't there something a touch hypocritical about people complaining that Google, Facebook, and other companies complied with government data requests? Isn't this the very world we, the public, helped create?

Chris Matyszczyk
5 min read
Trust him more than your government? Google

I hear wailing.

I think it's coming from all those who believed, in some sweet corner of their minds, that they were changing the world. You know, for the better.

The generation that believed technology was heralding a new togetherness, a new openness, a new freedom, a new transparency is suddenly confronted by the idea that its idols might be something terrible -- yes, pragmatic.

Suddenly, they hear that Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and all the other immature brand names might have been offering information to the government when the government asked nicely -- which hardly seems something new, given the already recorded instances of government issuing subpoenas in order to get information. (Not that we know everything about them.)

Yet the wailers bemoan: "How could they do this?"

"They've betrayed us!" they shriek. "It's a surveillance state. They've destroyed our privacy."

It's as if some Nirvana, some peculiar Yellow Brick Road has been defaced by the graffiti of Realpolitik Skinheads.

Josh Constine at TechCrunch, speaking of Google's and Facebook's stunningly similar and carefully worded "denials," wrote this: "Your supposedly candid statements full of technicalities just broke our hearts."

Was the brave Generation Tech so blindly in love with these companies and their founders that they didn't realize these were businesses and the founders had agendas?

These agendas revolved around garnering as much data as possible in order to provide "better" services -- and, of course, gain greater commercial (and, arguably, political) power.

Has Generation Tech been listening at all? Has it bothered staring in the mirror, for more than just a check of its eyebrow line and a reassurance that its check shirt hangs just so?

More than three years ago, Mark Zuckerberg explained that people don't want privacy.

"People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time," he explained, with his usual casually robotic tone.

Yet he seemed to have meant that the social norm is to share with our friends -- and with him -- but not with the NSA.

Because this week he said: "Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the U.S. or any other government direct access to our servers," and that his company will "continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure."

But what if the government has the proper legal paperwork?

Where did he get the idea that we're comfortable with sharing anyway? From himself first, obviously. But also from us.

In exchange for every free service offered by Facebook, Google, and the like, we blithely handed over the diary of our everyday lives.

Our searches, our e-mails, our phone calls, our photos, and our videos we gave away until some of these companies had the gall to declare that even if we wanted to have them back, they would -- at the very least -- keep their own copy, with which they could do what they wanted.

This was now their data, not just ours, if we can extract if from their clouds.

Meanwhile, we bathed in the joy of being able to show Aunt Lily in Melbourne pictures of the party we went to on Saturday night. We couldn't wait for her to comment: "That looks like fun!"

When we heard that Google and anyone else whose e-mail we used were actually reading every word we wrote -- so that they could, generously, improve our search and ad experience -- we listened to the facts but didn't care about the consequences.

They told us only machines were reading them, so we trusted them.

But listen to this, from just one reader, concerned about the state of the world:

I had a friend who worked in the phone company switching office. One day he took me on a tour. He said, "check this out." He connected a hand set to our neighbor's active phone line so we could listen in. I haven't been comfortable making personal phone calls since. Whether its a bored phone company employee or a former priest with a new job at the NSA, I think we should be worried by the extent of so called random collection, the people in charge of the collection and if the collection includes activating private networks and equipment.

Is this story credible? Is this the world we've helped to create?

The wailers complain that any government surveillance seems to be happening with no oversight. Yet there is oversight. At least that's what President Obama, Diane Feinstein, and others tells us.

But what oversight do we have over Google, Verizon, and the rest? Indeed, the tech companies' mantra is the very same as the government's: trust us.

Do tech company CEOs simply believe they are more trustworthy than the government?

Government has always had ways to discover things about us. Arguably, it still knows less about us than the tech companies do. And just imagine how much the tech companies know about government.

There is one small difference between the two: we can vote a government out. We can at least express our expectations of it.

The only way we can vote out Google and Facebook is by finding alternative services that somehow give us what they don't.

Those services are not many. Most similar services are subject to the very same habits that the current tech wave has made the business (and social) norm. Most would offer denials written by the very same lawyers who seem to have cobbled together the current crop.

How did these companies get to where they are? By getting us to hurriedly click "I agree" every time we saw those annoying words.

Yes, yes, of course I agree, just give me the damn service as quickly and painlessly as possible.

We were desperate for 5,000 friends, 10,000 songs and 250 followers.

We wanted an easier life, full of fun and open communication. We didn't care about the price. We didn't see a price, because we didn't bother looking.

We made ourselves transparent. And now we wail?

Perhaps we should be wailing for ourselves.