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."
In Facebook's conversations with the government, then, "what we pushed for was, at least to start, can we release the aggregate number of requests that we get? And that includes both national security requests, which are confidential, and more day-to-day stuff." And the sum of those requests in the past half-year, Zuckerberg said, ended up being around 9,000. Which is a lot. But which is not a dragnet. "And that, I think, is very useful as a piece of information," Zuckerberg noted. "Because it tells you that it's a lot closer to 1,000 than it is to 100 million."