Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims to be a champion of civil liberties and privacy, but this is questionable. Facebook's reputation of politically-based censorship and its recently revealed financial relationship with the NSA should lead Facebook users to doubt that the company will defend their privacy against the government. On Tuesday, Facebook released a Global Government Requests Report in which the social networking giant details the number of information requests that governments have made, the number of Facebook user accounts requested, and the percentage of requests complied with over the first six months of 2013. The requests detailed include requests for information related to both criminal and national security matters, but the company claims that the majority involved criminal cases.
According to this report, during the first half of 2013, the United States government made 11,000-12,000 requests to Facebook for information on 20,000-21,000 users' accounts. These figures are imprecise, because United States federal law forbids companies from revealing precisely how many times they have been ordered to turn over customer information. Facebook claims to have complied with 79% of the requests.
Zuckerberg has denied whistleblower Edward Snowden's claims that through the PRISM surveillance program the NSA was provided direct access to Facebook's servers. In a June 7 Facebook post, Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook will only provide information about its users to governments if the information "is required by law." Zuckerberg vowed to Facebook users that his company "will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure."
While Zuckerberg is claiming to be a civil libertarian, the Guardian revealed last week that the NSA paid Facebook millions of dollars to cover the costs of court-ordered revised compliance measures by which domestic and foreign communications must be distinguished. The existence of this financial relationship blurs the line between compliance and complicity.
Facebook has a history of engaging in politically-based censorship. Many have accused Facebook of deleting the accounts of anti-government and anti-corporate activists. In April of 2011, critics of British austerity programs claimed that Facebook deleted their accounts for political reasons. On December 27, 2012 Facebook allegedly deactived the accounts of many critics of American government, leading to claims that this was politically motivated. In early 2012, it was revealed that Facebook employs low-wage foreign workers to search for posts to delete based upon categories, including the vague "hate speech" category.
While a private entity has the right to deactivate accounts, Facebook's pattern of politically-based censorship combined with this newly-revealed financial relationship with the NSA should encourage Facebook users to question Zuckerberg's claims. The most rational thing for Facebook to do is create positive PR by claiming to champion its users' privacy rights while at the same time cooperating fully with the government in order to avoid legal costs. The most rational thing that Facebook users can do is assume that Facebook will act rationally. Given how much private information Facebook possesses and given how powerful governments are, users should be very afraid.