Facebook and Twitter Slipped Us a Roofie

(The Root) — Funny thing happened on the way through the shutdown: While we were all understandably preoccupied with political chaos, Silicon Valley geeks were busily finding new ways to dismantle any notion of privacy on the Internet. 

Facebook, always on an odious quest to pull our digital pants down, eliminated the option for users to stay invisible in its search function. That was snuck in on the 11th day of the shutdown, which offered convenient cover from the scream collective that typically gathers storm when Mark Zuckerberg unleashes world-domination plans.


Seven miles away on the same strip of California highway, Google whispered to users that they shouldn't be too surprised if they find their profiles suddenly popping up on Google ads, reviews and whatever else is Chromed on the Internet giant's elaborate spiderweb. And, a bit more than 45 minutes away, Twitter tweaked its famous and much-liked direct-message privacy setting so now any of your followers can DM and spam you even if you didn't ask for it.  

What does all of this mean?

Perhaps it's something in the Northern California water that makes tech demigods think they can poke and prod through our digital homes like burglars rummaging around in broad daylight. Certainly, the gods of Mount Internet can argue easily that, well, we all signed on to it. But did we really sign on to cavalier and contemptuous pricks into our privacy? Did we seriously expect that? A recent Pew Internet and American Life Project Study shows an overwhelming majority of us didn't — 86 percent, in fact, would prefer being anonymous online (even though 59 percent know it's impossible to achieve complete Internet anonymity). 


Yet there was something about recent radar-evading privacy overhauls that had the air of a sneaky kid about them. Silicon Valley's timing was impeccable: staging what would have otherwise been a dramatic and publicly rebuked privacy renovation if it hadn't been for the distraction of a government shutdown and debt-ceiling fight. It was as if we were at a bar in a noisy nightclub watching DJ Ted Cruz spin awful electronic remixes while three California nerds looking for a good time slipped us a roofie.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) attempted to raise some hell about it, at least with respect to Google, sending an acridly worded letter to the Federal Trade Commission on the second Saturday of the shutdown. But who would take the letter, since the FTC was closed during the shutdown? Who would notice an obscure missive from a little-known, recently elected senator trying to make a name for himself and maybe score a bit of attention from the Internet Oz while at it?

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.


Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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