What’s the difference between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange? A recent Saturday Night Live skit with Bill Hader as Assange answered that question: “I give you private information on corporations for free and I’m a villain,” he says. “Mark Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he’s Man of the Year.”
It seems backwards, right? In a perfect world, the release of free information about corporate malfeasance would be celebrated and the selling of private information for profit would be illegal, or at least frowned upon. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead, Assange gets arrested and Zuckerberg makes billions and is named Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
The U.S. government insists on secrecy. Every politician seems to campaign on bring transparency to Washington and making the government more for, by, and of the people. Yet it never seems to work. So when someone like Assange comes along and pulls back the curtain on important areas of public interest like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the government goes code red.
Facebook is the opposite. No one is forced to reveal personal information; we do it willingly. And the company takes that information and uses it to sell advertising and make billions of dollars in profit. Zuckerberg believes in total openness—on Facebook and in the world as a whole—yet somehow I think he’d had a problem if Wikileaks revealed how Facebook was using people and their information to make a huge profit.
I’m not wholly anti-Facebook. I think it’s a great way to communicate and stay in touch with friends and family. And the way things are going it looks like the site will be the Internet one day. But there’s something very unsettling about how disclosure through Facebook is encouraged yet through Wikileaks it’s demonized. And as long as institutions like Time continue to honor this dangerous dichotomy, things won’t change.