Mark Zuckerberg's Advice to the NSA: Communicate

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."

It would seem an irony, at first, that Zuckerberg would be criticizing the government's lack of transparency. Not only because the PRISM program was designed to be secretive, leading to some de-facto filters for sunlight, but also because Facebook, for much of its history, has itself been no stranger to complaints about violated privacy. Often the social network has been the one on the receiving end of "communicate better" exhortations. 

But Facebook, like its young founder, is growing up. It's evolving from a Silicon Valley startup -- hack things! break things! ask for forgiveness, not permission! -- into a creature whose blue-and-white arms wrap around the globe. In undergoing that transformation, the company has gotten very good at communication. It has adapted its ethos of publicness -- sharing as an activity that assumes an almost moral dimension -- into one of publicity. The company, in other words, has become savvy about strategic sharing. It has become great at PR.

In that sense, Facebook, which learned the hard way about the restorative power of transparency, is a fitting advisor to a government agency that has, in its own way -- possibly, we think, though we're not quite sure how -- violated user privacy.

The main challenge the government faces, Zuckerberg suggested, is a classic problem of informational imbalance. The NSA knows everything about the PRISM program; we, the public, know almost nothing. And ignorance, as it so often does, is engendering insecurity, which is, in turn, engendering mistrust: The public has had very little sense of the proportion of the government's PRISM requests, and that has led, understandably, to widespread confusion. When "privacy violation" is involved, we tend to assume the worst. And hen it came to the PRISM requests made specifically of Facebook, Zuckerberg said, "you couldn't get a sense of whether the number is closer to 1,000 or closer to 100 million. Right? I mean, there's hardly any indication of what it was."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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