Facebook’s Court Challenge Is Just a New Kind of Advertisement

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Facebook has taken a series of New York warrants to court, challenging them and the conditions under which they were presented. The warrants were presented to the social networking company by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and demand details on 381 Facebook users. The company challenged the warrants, which were presented in July 2013, just shortly after Edward Snowden leaked his first NSA document and changed the U.S. mindset on privacy, web-freedom, and surveillance. Facebook claims that only 62 of the 381 individuals named in the warrants were charged with a crime.

“This appeal arises from the largest set of search warrants that Facebook has ever received and presents important questions concerning the lawful limits on searches and seizures in the digital age,” reads the company’s preliminary statement to the court. “The warrants also contained broad gag provisions barring Facebook from informing its users what the Government was forcing it to do.”

Now, the subsequent rulings and appeals have brought out the predictable arguments: safety and security versus individual rights, privacy versus national security, reasonable cause, and how much justification should be needed for gaining that kind of information. And proponents of privacy arguments are undoubtedly pleased to see the stance Facebook has taken in the trial. However, what are Facebook’s motivations? And what does this tell us about the importance of consumers to politics?

Good advertisement and great PR

I’d argue that, cynical as it may seem, Facebook’s efforts are akin to good advertisement. Just as any good company or advertiser considers the hopes, dreams, and most certainly fears of its target consumer or audience, Facebook has considered the national and international psyche, the social media and tech industry, and the Internet. And what have they found? That — as a Pew Research report confirms in no uncertain terms — potential and current social media users recognize that their privacy is in danger and that social media and the Internet aren’t nearly as private as they may once have seemed. Pew Research has polls that state “91% of adults … ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies” and that “70% of social networking site users say they are at least somewhat concerned about the government accessing some of the information they share on social networking sites without their knowledge.”

Snowden’s influence

With all eyes on Snowden’s released documents and the fallout reaching from the NSA, to Obama’s administration, to other major tech companies, queue the national paranoia. Suddenly it’s incredibly marketable to be protecting your users’ privacy. It’s good PR to be involved in this sort of prolonged court case — and while prolonging the legal proceedings may not be cheap, it’s potentially the best bang for your buck when it comes to getting the message across, assuming the case sees enough press coverage — which of course it has. What better ad could one create to illustrate to the public that a company has our interests at heart.

The cynical side

This idea of legal action and protection of users’ rights solely as a calculated response to user perception and company reputation isn’t an entirely bad thing. No company and corporation can be counted on to behave responsibly if behaving irresponsibly has no ill effects, is cheaper, and has no detrimental business fallout. And while there’s a balance to be struck in terms of not being overly pessimistic on the moral sensibilities of corporations, business is business.

The good news

This is disconcerting only for those who haven’t accepted it as a reality of the business jungle; eat or be eaten after all. It should be encouraging for the rest, because what it means is that we as consumers — grocery shoppers and Facebook users and car purchasers — have a particularly strong and well financed tool at our disposal. If our response to problems with government, law enforcement, business practices, and really anything else one can think of can spur business response of the sort we see Facebook engaging in.

It’s hardly news that consumers have a great deal of power over businesses — if no one will buy a product that doesn’t ensure it’s free of dolphin meat, that company will change its practices. It’s no different than refusing to trade with a nation — for example, imposing economic sanction on Russia — because that country’s political or military actions are frowned upon. When it comes to Internet freedom or the need to preserve net neutrality, a similar power is had and should be remembered.

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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