Facebook learned the power of transparency the hard way. Now, it wants the government to benefit from its education.
Last week, Facebook sued the government. "We are joining others in the industry," Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch wrote in a post on the company's website, "in petitioning the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to require the government to permit companies to disclose more information about the volume and types of national security-related orders they receive.” So why did a suit like that come in early September, several months after the initial revelations of the NSA's dealings with tech giants and their data? Because there'd been a breakdown, it seems, of communication. "In recent weeks," Stretch wrote, "it has become clear that the dialogue with the U.S. government that produced some additional transparency at the outset is at this point unlikely to result in more progress."
In a conversation this afternoon with Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennet, Zuckerberg elaborated on the suit. And he elaborated, too, on a comment he made last week: that "the government blew it" -- particularly when it came to communicating about the revealed PRISM program to the public. “Some of the government’s statements have been particularly unhelpful,” Zuckerberg told Bennet. “Like, oh, we only spy on non-Americans.” (Facebook, of course, is a global brand.)
But the broader problem, as the CEO explained it, is the NSA's continued obfuscation of its programs, even after their revelation into the public mind and the public conversation. The government did a bad job, essentially, of explaining itself to an indignant user base. "The more transparency and communication that the government can do about how they're requesting data from us," Zuckerberg said, "the better everyone would feel about it. Not only because I believe in transparency, but also because it would be in their interest in terms of resolving this on the Facebook side."
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