Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Tech executives still lying


Marissa Meyer, CEO of Houyhnhnm? [Correction, that’s “Yahoo!”] has faced charges that her company (and other tech companies) undermined democracy and betrayed their customers’ trust by secret collusion with US espionage. She attempts to win back this trust by telling big lies. In a recent interview she claimed that

Releasing classified information is treason and you are incarcerated.

Nine words, and two (or maybe three) false statements.

First, the easy one: Treason is clearly defined in the US constitution.

Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.

She is confusing the United States government with the 18th Century British monarchy, that classed that any release of information not authorised by the state is treason.

What her company may or may not have been constrained by is called a National Security Letter (NSL), that typically comes with a gag order. (Whether this counts as “classified information” I am not sure. I’d take her word for it if she weren’t lying about everything else.) The constitutional scope of these gag orders has been challenged in court, but I don’t know what the current status is.

But is it true that if you disclose the receipt of an NSL “you are incarcerated”? In fact, the Department of Justice — not the American Society for Feelgood Antiauthoritarianism — writes in its fact sheet on the Patriot Act Reauthorization that this act

Discourages unauthorized disclosures by providing a criminal penalty for knowing and willful violation with intent to obstruct an investigation or judicial proceeding.

Until this reauthorisation, apparently there was no specific penalty legislated for disclosing NSLs. And afterward, it’s still not clear. It would clearly — and properly — be a punishable offence if Marissa Meyer found out that her college roommate was having her Houyhnhnm? account searched because she retweeted a suspicious number of posts from Sheikh Omar’s Twitter feed, and tipped her off. But to alert the public for reasons of improving democratic accountability most likely is not illegal at all, and is the sort of calculated risk that many journalistic organisations take on a daily basis. With far less money to back them up.

I don’t doubt that some investigator fed her that line about treason and incarceration. That’s what interrogators do, they help people out of their scruples. But presumably she could afford a lawyer to give her independent advice. She could even have looked up the US Constitution and the PATRIOT act, if she knows how to use a search engine.

And I don’t expect Marissa Meyer or Sergey Brin to blow the cover off government surveillance and flee to Russia. But they clearly have decided — unlike, say, the New York Times — that they are a merely commercial organisation, with no public responsibility, and that a legal struggle would hurt their profits. That is why their customers need to make sure to align their incentives, by boycotting or simply avoiding companies that don’t show sufficient civil courage on their own.

And telling lies is not a way to rebuild trust.

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