Facebook and Twitter Slipped Us a Roofie

While we were distracted by the shutdown, the tech giants stripped some more of our privacy rights.

Interestingly enough, just months before, individuals from all ideological stripes and social media corners were quickly fired up over a tsunami of sensitive material showing that the National Security Agency was snooping into everything from our email inboxes to our phone-call logs. We already knew this, however, because — real talk — that’s what governments do. In fact, it’s un-government not to do that (the problem here is that this particular government just got caught doing it). Still, the man who blew the NSA’s cover, Edward Snowden, is being idolized as some libertarian superhero. A Fox News poll found 62 percent of Americans felt NSA phone record collecting was “an unacceptable and alarming invasion of privacy rights.”

Shouldn’t the angry public, along with lawmakers, be just as outraged about stealthy online privacy overhauls by tech giants? Sure, you can say apples versus oranges all you want. But there should be an expectation of fair play when the government regulates an industry, just as there is an expectation of fair play from government agencies. Yet on a cultural level, our greedy need for social media and digital convenience precludes any chance of us really reining in the anti-privacy construct.

That’s alarming, since some Silicon Valley barons also see themselves as libertarian icons who would prefer a world devoid of government. “If companies shut down, the stock market would collapse. If the government shuts down, nothing happens, and we all move on, because it just doesn’t matter. Stasis in the government is actually good for all of us,” said tech capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya during a recent New York magazine podcast.

In the meantime, tech giants are bum-rushing their way into Washington. Jeff Bezos’ recent (and relatively cheap) acquisition of the Washington Post was a symbol of tech’s big hand in the policymaking game. Campaign contributions from the combined communications and electronics industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, went from $17 million in the 1990 cycle to nearly $140 million in the 2008 cycle.

Much of that is driven by the Internet sector, which contributed a total of $64.3 million to candidates in the 2012 election cycle. (Folks like Sen. Markey, mentioned above, and Sen.-elect Cory Booker were among the top three recipients of that loot.) Lobbying by that sector went from less than $50 million in 1998 (at the tip of the premillennium Internet bubble) to about $130 million in 2012. Google is the largest tech lobbying force in Washington, spending close to $7 million on government relations so far in 2013, compared with Facebook’s $3.5 million.

This is more than the defense industry, which spent only $27 million in the 2012 election cycle.

Of course, this begs the question of whether money really buys influence in politics and public policy. Or, in the case of these privacy changes, silence. Lawmakers and their staff get predictably indignant when asked. But this is like the secret illegitimate child who everyone knows about. It’s the secret of American politics that really isn’t a secret.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. When he’s not mad, he can be reached via Twitter.