To some people, a piece of online content might just be a tweet, a picture, or a snippet of conversation. Perhaps even a record of a purchase, or a click on an ad, a like, or a search. To some, our trail of online breadcrumbs is confidential and personal; to others it’s public property. It all depends on whose collecting it. Or does it?
The U.S. government has been the focal point of a firestorm of criticism of late for its Orwellian collection of personal data on its citizens. But brands collect similar information as a matter of course – and while companies like Facebook and Google and Amazon have thus far avoided the kind of outcry that’s come the government’s way, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be immune forever. The government’s handling – or mishandling, depending on who you’re talking to – of its approach to digital content can be incredibly instructive for brands who could one day be dealing with similar issues.
For starters, the government’s attitude towards leakers of content has been widely seen as overly aggressive and heavy-handed. Consider that Deric Lostutter, the hacker responsible for outing much of the evidence in the Steubenville, Ohio rape case might end up spending more time in jail than the rapists he exposed. Or that hacker Andrew Auernheimer is currently serving 41 months in prison for discovering a loophole in AT&T security and sharing it.
Writing letters to the outside world about other whistleblowers he’s met, ex-CIA agent John Kirakou peacefully serves his 30 month sentence in federal prison for exposing instances of torture, but not too long ago internet activist and respected programmer Aaron Swartz commited suicide awaiting a trial in which he faced over 11 federal charges and potentially 35 years in prison for downloading too many files from a library database.
And a petition to pardon the latest whistleblower, Edward Snowden, has gone viral, amassing nearly 10,000 signatures within the first 24 hours; it’s now over 80,000 with several weeks left to hit the minimum of 100,000 signatures for the White House to take it into official consideration.
Digital content and secrecy have clearly caused the government problems.
The government’s response has been standard damage control PR – deny everything, and restrict information as much as possible. But playing the defensive hasn’t done the administration much good to this point, and it begs the question of how effective secrecy can really be in a digital world where everyone is a publisher and everyone has a voice. Digital content and secrecy have clearly caused the government problems; perhaps digital content and transparency could offer a solution.
What is our government up to?
In its defense, the government hasn’t been entirely opaque. It has published a list of words it scans for in public digital communications, and it’s a well-known fact that the NSA has spent over $2 billion on a new data collecting center outside of Salt Lake City. And while many Americans disapprove of the agency’s monitoring of phone calls and online data, there are also plenty that think it’s an acceptable trade-off to make for our safety. Brands face a similar problem: how to balance the concerns of customers concerned with privacy with those who are happy to have their data harvested.
What the government has not done is to tell its side of the story; and it’s that lesson that can be most instructive to brands worried about a similar backlash.
What the government has not done is to tell its side of the story.
Consider that for every media outlet in hysterics over Edward Snowden’s disclosures there are those who think the government is just doing its job to keep us safe. But how can we know if the government isn’t telling us how? Most likely the Feds have no ulterior motive in their data mining; but the NSA isn’t saying, and it’s a little bit absurd to hide behind the secrecy veil when there are over 1.4 million people with Top Secret clearance. Why is there no content talking about the reasoning behind PRISM, the government project outed by Edward Snowden that harvests communication data from various suppliers like Verizon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft? If the NSA were a brand, its entire marketing team would have been toast by now.
The age of whistleblowing
The government certainly doesn’t try to suppress content sharing and creation. It’s set up databases for consumer complaints or even for reporting crimes online via the International Crime Center. The FDA is attempting to eradicate its reputation for smoke and mirrors by presenting materials online to be more “socially engaging.” NASA commented this month that Twitter has changed its communications “more than anything else in 30 years.”
If the NSA were a public company, its entire marketing team would have been toast by now.
But as it embraces an age of content in some ways, the government seems to be making it clear that they want to know where that content’s coming from. The internet is not as anonymous as it used to be. Having a “fake” Facebook profile is now considered a crime (see Senate Bill 1411) and certainly with PRISM not only will anonymity be even further gone but much more will be known about users’ activity. In that sense, the government is acting more and more like a brand.
Sharing content online is now presenting itself as a potentially vicious cycle: The more the government attempts to manage over digital content and give the internet some form of “order,” the more content is created and disseminated in opposition. It’s clear, judging by how many activists are currently in jail or awaiting trial for “crimes of content,” that the government hasn’t come close to figuring out how to deal with it. The lack of true dialogue and transparency can manifest itself in either wild speculation or outright conspiracy theories — like Seven Unanswered Questions About the Government or “how much” is what we don’t know about citizen spying.
Whether Edward Snowden is pardoned or not, it seems clear that the government’s confrontational attitude toward digital content it doesn’t like will get worse before it gets better. And that’s too bad. By embracing transparency and engaging with its citizens in a conversation about its policies, the government could finally get itself in front of this story. Instead, we’re destined to continue on with the cycle of leaks, crackdowns and more leaks. Brands concerned about similar backlash would do well to learn from the government’s mistakes.