>James Byrne analyses a poignant comment on modern culture created from one meme in particular.
‘Time Magazine’ confirmed its status as a dinosaur of old media by naming Mark Zuckerberg ahead of Julian Assange as its ‘Man of The Year’ for 2010 – despite Assange’s major achievements with the site being between 2007 and 2009. Recently, an internet meme comparing the actions of the two men has been doing the rounds. The meme is based on a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit in which comedian Bill Hader dressed as Assange says: “I give you private information on corporations for free and I’m a villain. Mark Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he’s ‘Man of the Year’.” The comment was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but as it has managed to capture the imagination of so many since, how far can we take this comparison? Well, it seems on the face of it, not very. There really isn’t that much similarity between the head of a company that farms legally obtained information off to companies for advertising and a man responsible for leaking confidential documents. One is good business, the other an act of… either freedom fighting or cybercrime, depending on whose dogma suits you. Comparisons between Assange and Zuckerberg are flawed in the sense that they only look at half the story, like how the information was obtained, or in the case of Julian Assange and ‘WikiLeaks’, stolen. We share our own information online and in doing so relinquish control over whose hands it ends up in.
Yet surely Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange are just two sides of the same coin? Both march confidently from different directions towards a world where: “Everyone belongs to everyone else”. ‘Time Magazine’ explains the fundamental difference between the two men: “While Assange attacks big institutions and governments through involuntary transparency with the goal of disempowering them, Zuckerberg enables individuals to voluntarily share information with the idea of empowering them. Assange sees the world as filled with real and imagined enemies; Zuckerberg sees the world as filled with potential friends.”Strangely, it is Zuckerberg’s world vision that is closer to reality. Much of what has been posted by ‘WikiLeaks’ to date has been less than earth-shattering and it doesn’t seem to have affected the way governments handle confidential cables. Nor has this information theft shaken the confidence of ‘Facebook’ users to post more and more information to the social network. Thankfully the media has long since abandoned the debate over whether ‘WikiLeaks’ is good or bad, though it shouldn’t be forgotten completely. Revelations by ‘WikiLeaks’ are warning shots about the value of privacy in every corner of the digital world and the debate about the privacy of governments is linked to a more profound one on an individual level. Many people still harbour the illusion of privacy online, but ‘WikiLeaks’ has since shattered this veneer. Every service ‘Facebook’ offers – from photo sharing and music streaming to ‘Farmville’ – are designed to gather information about users in the hope that online advertisers will pay a premium for specific targeting. A huge database of information on its 800 million users is the main reason why the company is now valued at around $100 billion.
Whether you agree with what either Assange or Zuckerberg are doing, it doesn’t matter. Today almost everyone has an online profile, with personal information just sitting there to be harvested by advertisers. This alone doesn’t sound too frightening – companies can target you as accurately as they like but they can never force you to buy their products. Yet the fact that there are people out there willing to leak details of private conversations to organisations, like ‘WikiLeaks’, has serious implications for privacy. This involves both state and individual levels throughout the rest of the web – including social networks. It took one soldier with the rank of private first class to feed information to ‘WikiLeaks’. One day there might be a rogue employee at ‘Google’ or ‘Facebook’, or the just company where you work, who could make something public that you wish they hadn’t.
Ultimately, all of these systems come down to trust in other people, corporations, and governments. We are willing to suspend our privacy online because we trust those we are giving the information to. Invasions of state privacy by ‘WikiLeaks’ gained support from those who (rightly) don’t trust governments. These people have the power to account for taps into the original fantasy of the internet as a democratising force. But beware; if we are to support Assange’s mission to make governments and corporations more open against their will, then we had better hope he doesn’t find a whistleblower in ‘Facebook’ HQ. Assange once called ‘Facebook’ “the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented” and those of us who don’t often consider the consequences of what we post on social networks would be wise to take notice of the man.