Now, Clinton introduced a fifth. “The freedom to connect,” she said, “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate.”
“Once you’re on the internet,” she added, “you don’t need to be a tycoon or a rock star to have a huge impact on society.”
It is funny that she should mention tycoons: That same morning, the Supreme Court announced its Citizens United decision, which struck down many existing campaign-finance laws. But even without that context, the speech seems poignant. It’s not that Clinton comes off as starry-eyed—she describes, frequently and forcefully, how the internet can be used to oppress and weaken civil society—but that she was ignorant of the future. As she spoke, the Arab Spring still lay nearly a year ahead. The Syrian Civil War and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine loomed even more distantly. So too did Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election—a defeat fueled by the chaos of those same social networks, to a tycoon who (to borrow a phrase) wound up having a huge impact on society.
I thought of Clinton’s speech as I read a memo by the Facebook executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, published Thursday by BuzzFeed. Bosworth argues that Facebook takes extraordinary steps to fuel its own growth—and that these steps are worth it in the name of connection. The memo was first posted in an internal company forum in June 2016.
“We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified,” Bosworth writes. “All the questionable contact-importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China someday. All of it.”
“That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies,” he says in another section. “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”
In a statement, Bosworth said that he was just trying to get people going. “It was intended to be provocative,” he said in a tweet. “I don’t agree with the post today and I didn’t agree with it even when I wrote it.”
My colleague Conor Friedersdorf has argued that Bosworth’s frankness is praiseworthy, that more C-suiters should speak honestly about what drives their company’s success. Perhaps so. But it also reveals something of the culture of Facebook—and what will become of that culture, and the software it produces, if the company grows increasingly less popular.
The memo contains several striking portions on its own. “All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends”: This is the first time I can remember any executive seeming to admit that Facebook sometimes uses weasel words to hide privacy settings. After nearly every Facebook privacy debacle, Mark Zuckerberg promises to make privacy settings easier to find and use. Bosworth’s memo suggests there’s a reason why Zuckerberg has to keep making this promise.