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Caught in Their Web

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Despite not having leveled any legal charges against Assange, however, the U.S. and its allies have waged an extraordinary extralegal campaign to shut down WikiLeaks. In light of the ensuing denial-of-service counterattacks, the price of that strategy may prove even higher than it appears now. “They’ve created a group of vigilantes,” says Harvard’s Internet-law eminence, Lawrence Lessig. “Now, with that group having built a cyber-army that’s gone out and flexed its muscles, you have to wonder, once this war is over, what are these vigilantes going to do? What next?”

God knows Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t likely be able to muster a similar army to rally to his defense—but then again, he’s unlikely ever to need one. Unlike Assange, no grand (or grandiose) ideals, let alone ideological convictions, seem to motivate Facebook’s front man. Even money, contrary to the imputations of Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network, seems fairly meaningless to him; in 2006, when Zuckerberg was 22, he walked away from a $1 billion offer from Yahoo to buy the company.

But in the eyes of Zuckerberg’s critics, what WikiLeaks threatens to do to secrecy, Facebook is doing, or wants to do, to privacy. In its six-year run, the company has changed its privacy policies many times, almost always trying to “help itself—and its advertising and business partners—to more and more of its users’ information, while limiting users’ options to control their own information,” as an analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation puts it. Those efforts have often caused a commotion, notably this past spring, when complaints became so loud that government officials in several countries got into the act, and Facebook eventually climbed down. Though Zuckerberg occasionally mouths pro-privacy bromides, his deeper attitude is more relaxed. “We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are,” he has said.

This kind of talk will always give some privacy heads the willies. Yet it’s difficult to argue with its premise or implications: that social norms regarding privacy are, in fact, changing rapidly all over the web and not just on Facebook. In the face of recent calls for a “do not track” registry for the Internet, New York’s reigning venture capitalist, Fred Wilson, opined to the Times: “Tracking technology helps services like Amazon and Netflix make purchase recommendations. Tracking helps newspapers like the New York Times and other online publications place ads that you’ll actually care about … A Web without tracking technology would be so much worse for users and consumers.”

Wilson is right, though there’s no question that people should be given every right to opt out of tracking, just as Facebook’s users should have a simple way to control how much information about themselves is exposed, and to whom. As the web continues its warp-speed metamorphosis, it may be that new laws are needed to strike the appropriate balance between openness and privacy. Just as new laws might be required to deal with the issues posed by WikiLeaks.

What would be a disaster, though, would be for the site to be shut down simply because it has made the U.S. government uncomfortable and grumpy. This is true as a matter of principle, but it is also true for practical reasons. As Lessig points out, there is a strong corollary between the battle over WikiLeaks and the one that once raged over Napster—which, though the record business won in the short term, did nothing to stem music piracy long-term, and indeed created a worse situation for the industry by spawning countless Napster imitators using more advanced and uncontrollable technologies.

Adapting to the new age of radical transparency rather than resisting it won’t be easy for political elites—or the rest of us. In addition to new rules, there will need to be new habits, new systems, and new clarity about what really requires being kept out of public view and the trade-offs entailed in trying to do so. But what Assange and Zuckerberg have taught us is that this new age, predicted since the dawn of the web, is upon us. Pretending we can quash it or wish it away is not just futile, but dangerous.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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