Privacy is the Person of Last Year
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has been crowned Person of the Year by Time magazine. WikiLeaks boss Julian Assange, meanwhile, topped the associated reader poll. Uncommon levels of self-belief, and superior coding abilities, aren’t the only parallels between the two men. Both are leading the technological assault on privacy.
The two organizations have obvious differences in scale and intent. Facebook has more than 500 million users and is profitable. It aims to give people “the power to share.” WikiLeaks is a small non-profit that believes, among other things, in “the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices.”
But the two organizations share a devotion to the idea that society benefits when more is made public. Facebook’s personal information-sharing facilitates everything from keeping up with friends living overseas to finding fellow beekeepers in Bushwick. WikiLeaks, by contrast, explicitly encourages “leaks” of ethical, political and historical significance, including as it turns out state secrets, in the hope of reducing corruption and increasing political accountability.
Whether either Facebook or WikiLeaks will live up their leaders’ divergent, but comparably idealistic, hopes is questionable. Extra status updates can bring friends closer or just irritate, and personal data shared online can reveal more than is healthy. Likewise, making ambassadorial dispatches public can shine a disinfecting light on a government’s role in unsavory deals — or hurt efforts to forestall damaging conflicts and put undercover agents in harm’s way.
Both organizations are gaining status and so are their leaders, as the Time selections attest. This may, however, be their golden hour. Technology has made it much harder to keep things hidden or to hush them up once exposed. But the costs of bringing formerly private things to light are likely to become increasingly evident. Even the relatively benign-seeming Mr. Zuckerberg, now in command of vast amounts of personal information, is likely to face calls for far greater accountability from Facebook’s mass of users – if not regulators one day.
For his part, Mr. Assange has chosen to provoke governments and big companies. But both Facebook and WikiLeaks are in the vanguard of exploiting the Internet’s power to collect and broadcast once-confidential information. Whatever the constraints eventually imposed on either model, the genie is out of the bottle. Already, privacy is the person – or rather the casualty – of the past year.