Sunday, January 22, 2012

Alien vs. Predator?

The image above has begun making the rounds on Facebook, and while I appreciate the point, it's mistaken in some important ways.

Most important, I think, is that Wikileaks has primarily published information on governments, not corporations. Oh, there was a flurry of corporate panic at the end of 2010 when Assange announced that Wikileaks would release a trove of documents on corporate malfeasance, but nothing seems to have come of it. The big story about Wikileaks is and has always been the government secrets -- military, diplomatic -- that it has put on the table. The fact that the person who constructed this image got things so far wrong indicates that he or she doesn't really understand what Wikileaks has done; the intent seems more to bash Facebook and Zuckerberg rather than to praise Assange.

Was the information Wikileaks released "private" in the first place? No, except in the narrow and circular sense of "secret." It was public in the truest sense of the word: it concerned events that were paid for by the public dime, and then concealed from the public by public agencies. Governments do not have a right to privacy, especially when they are engaged in criminal enterprises; nor do government officials in their role as government officials. Whether Barack Obama wears boxers or briefs, for example, is a matter I'm happy to leave private, though it's just the kind of fact that many Americans, and the corporate media, would claim that the public has a right to know. (I suspect that Obama would address the boxers vs. briefs question more readily than questions about dead Afghan or Pakistani children, however.) But what our government is doing with its weapons and its troops and its vast amounts of money is what the public has not only a right but an obligation to know. I would include the world, not just Americans, since so much of our crimes are committed on foreign soil.

The original meaning of the word "private" is "secret," and it still often has secrecy as a connotation. Much of what is considered private nowadays is not secret: one's marital status (registered at the courthouse), one's birth date (ditto), the number and names of one's children, and so on. Most people, I think, never consider what they're agreeing to when they join a social network like Facebook, nor despite all the ballyhooed tech-savvy of today's teens do they have any idea how such a system works, or what "privacy" means as a technical term on the Web. But then, neither do most Americans. Even most tech geeks in the 1980s, when I first got online, knew how data packets worked on networks but had little idea what privacy meant on the Net. I shocked the (gay, heterosexually married, closeted) SysOp of a bulletin board system in those days by registering under my own name and posting as an openly gay man; but I knew what I was doing. Other people I knew were outraged to discover that their e-mail wasn't protected by Federal law as their Postal mail was, and that the administrator of a system could read any "private" messages he or she chose to; whatever protection existed was internal to the system.

In the good old days, not so very long ago, anyone could walk into a public library and look through a published street directory, which contained such information as who lived at each address, including children. These directories had many uses, but prominent among them was marketing. A marketer or salesman could check out a neighborhood prior to trying to sell things there. It looks to me as though Facebook and other Internet businesses are just vastly bigger versions of those directories, with all the information organized and searchable by computers. That's just one of the wonders of our Electronic Age, and much of the "privacy" people seem to think they've lost to Facebook's commercial interests was lost long ago; never mind that they themselves freely gave the information to Facebook when they signed up and filled out their profile. Or when they clicked "Like" on this or that corporate product.

Apparently they believe their personal likes and dislikes are "private", hidden in the dark depths of the Intertoobz. But why do they think that all those corporate products are there to be "liked" on Facebook? Nothing is free, and certainly not a vast technological network with hundreds of millions of members. You can't have it both ways, though I suppose in our world you can't even choose the other way. If you want your online "privacy," then you'll need to find another way to pay for the servers and the storage and the programmers; they don't come cheap, especially not on the scale of Facebook. If you want Facebook to be free of charge, then how do you propose to meet its costs? If you want your privacy, then what kind of fool does it take to believe that you can post pictures of you passed out drunk on a global information network and still have any privacy at all?

In another sense of the word, of course, Facebook is private: it's privately owned by Mark Zuckerberg and other shareholders, including its employees. You didn't think it was "public," did you? Like Zuccotti Park? You didn't think it just grew into existence all by itself, like the flowers in the park, available to be picked and/or peed on by anyone who comes along? Truly, the thoughtlessness of many people about the public and the private boggles my mind. But then, it's probably no coincidence that my Facebook friends from Teabag Nation are the ones who always fall for, and pass along, the urban legends about Facebook starting to charge for its services.