A friend of mine asked me my thoughts about this site:
My initial thoughts went something like this, as I watched: "Hmm. Interesting... Really? Hmm... Unlikely... Hmm... Going to have to look into *that* one... Ok, this is getting silly... Ok, now I'm annoyed... Ok, enough. Where's my machete?"
Once I was done with my big-knife bushwhacking fun, my final thoughts on Vishal Agarwala's piece are: Ridiculous. Alarmist and sensational.
Premise: Some educated and connected person discovered sinister connections between Facebook and several scary organizations, and out of the goodness of his heart, reported that Facebook is the tool of Big Brother.
Actuality: Some educated ne'er-do-well decided that Facebook was sinister, and went looking for reasons to justify his opinion. Agarwala uses an eight-(yes, eight!)-linked chain to connect Facebook to the Information Awareness Office (IAO). Seems a little forced to me, and I'll justify that feeling in a moment.
"Facebook may use information in your profile without identifying you as an individual to third parties... ...for example, if you put a favorite movie in your profile, we might serve you an advertisement highlighting a screening of a similar one in your town. But we don't tell the movie company who you are."
"We do not provide contact information to third party marketers without your permission."
"...third party developers who have created and operate Platform Applications ("Platform Developers"), may also have access to your personal information (excluding your contact information)..."
"Third party advertisers have no access to your contact information stored on Facebook unless you choose to share it with them."
The video then suggests that these marketers are bad. They're not bad. They're businesses, out to make money. Just like Facebook, which does not provide a service for free -- Facebook provides a free service paid for by marketing. Those marketers will use the data they buy to sell people like you things they think people like you want -- not to steal your identity. They don't, and can't, even know who you, in particular, are (unless, of course, you explicitly tell them, but that's always the case).
Then the video dismisses it; "So maybe they use us, but is that all?" Well, that's just silly, but if Agarwala wants to dismiss an argument that I think is utterly ridiculous anyway, then I'm OK with that. Just kind of curious why he brought it up in the first place, though...
Moving on. Now for the really sinister part. (And by sinister, I'm referring to the logical fallacy and manipulation on Agarwala's part, not Facebook's). Here's a review of the links Agarwala makes:
Link #1, Peter Thiel:
Early on, Facebook got money ($500,000) from Peter Thiel, founder and former CEO of Paypal. (it's implicit here that money's evil, so this must be a bad link).
Peter Thiel. Hmmm. Read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Thiel
Peter Thiel is a libertarian, and advances anti-establishment causes (ridding the world of greedy bankers was one of his original reasons for starting Paypal). He co-produced "Thank You For Smoking," a movie whose inherent goodness and anti-marketing, anti-corporation, anti-conspiracy, and anti-establishment themes are plainly apparent. He's given over $3.8M to advance research in anti-aging and artificial intelligence.
I think he's a good guy.
Link #2, Vanguard PAC:
Peter Thiel is a member of the "radical conservative group," Vanguard PAC.
Vanguard PAC's website espouses "conservative values, the free market and limited government." It's basically the conservative party's response to MoveOn.org, and is in its infancy. Thus, the jury's still out, but if it follows its own website's core values, I don't think it's much of a negative insight into Peter Thiel's character.
Link #3 (The web of a bunch of links):
To paraphrase: Facebook received $12.7M from venture capitalist company, Accel. James Breyer was on the board of Accel. James Breyer was also Chairman of the Board of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA), and worked there with Gilman Louie, who was the CEO of In-Q-Tel, which is the front company for the CIA to invest in technologies to further its agendas. Dr. Anita Jones also worked at In-Q-Tel on the board of directors, and the two of them (Jones and Louie) also worked together at BBN, one of the founders of what became the Internet. Jones also was in charge of DARPA for a time, which runs the Information Awareness Office, which is in the business of data mining; gathering all available info about everyone for easy access by government users.
Whew. Ok, this one sounds like it might have some scary merit. Here's how such a scary deal would work:
Dr. Anita Jones hears from some old friends at the IAO that it would be great to create a phony community site that gets users to give them all the juicy data they could possibly want. Jones calls up her buddy Gilman Louie, whom she knows (from their relationship at In-Q-Tel and the NVCA) will join in the evil plan, and suggests they mop up a bunch of money from the CIA, BBN, In-Q-Tel, and the NVCA to give to Facebook, an existing (and presumably innocent) company, whose software has already been written, with the caveat that Facebook overtly breaks its own policies and illegally modifies its software to hand over this data to the IAO. But, because Jones and Gilman know they're doing something illegal, they call up another person to filter the money through. The reason for this would be to... I don't know, increase the number of co-conspirators and distance themselves from the crime just in case someone looks into it? Agarwala was too smart for them, though! Anyway, Gilman calls up his partner at the NVCA, James Breyer, and pitches this to him, suggesting that the money go through Accel as well. For some very, very good reason or incentive -- it would have to be -- he agrees, and Facebook is presented with their Faustian Contract, which they sign, with dollar signs in their eyes. Then they bribe some software engineers to keep quite about what they've been asked to do, then they fit them with some cement loafers, because everyone knows us CS guys can't keep a good conspiracy quiet.
Ok, I hate to rain on everyone's drama parade, but this is ridiculous. Conspiracies are damned near impossible to pull off with two people. Dr. Anita Jones, Gilman Louie, James Breyer, the Facebook staff and programmer(s), as well as any number of these peoples' co-workers? That all these people could sit on something like this is just too much for me to believe. We have evil people on one side who care more about their sinister purposes and Machiavellian methods than the danger this represents to their careers (and these people are rare, I should think), trying to get greedy people who care, indeed, very much about their careers to do something terribly jeopardizing.
I'm not buying it. It's too complex. It's far more likely that the IAO is writing intelligent bots that pretend to be friendly people with cool Facebook pages. They befriend thousands, simply by inviting as many as they can find, and mine the personal data and contact information that we hand them on a silver platter when we accept their (ambiguous) friend request.
It's not a huge sinister conspiracy, it's our government gathering data for its own sake, and the ignorant among us blindly handing it over. This doesn't really bother me. The government will always have the threat to take utter control over its people as an option; any government will. But any successful government will be far too afraid of its people to ever take advantage of that. I think it's made abundantly clear, every day, that the American people will never allow that, and it's made clear by a huge range of people, from well-meaning sensationalists like Vishal Agarwala, to well-meaning, constructive activists and philanthropists like Peter Thiel.
So, my thoughts, in a nutshell: Facebook is not evil, or a front for anything evil. The CIA is not evil. DARPA is not evil. The IAO is not evil. Any of these organizations has the capacity to do some pretty fantastically scary things (some more than others), but I sincerely doubt they actually are. Too much risk for not enough reward for too many of the involved parties.