The (Not-So) Curious Case of Zuckerberg and Page's PRISM Denials

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
June 7 2013 8:38 PM

The (Not-So) Curious Case of Zuckerberg and Page's Noticeably Similar PRISM Denials

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A member of the media takes pictures of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as he speaks at an event at Facebook's headquarters office in Menlo Park, California, on January 15, 2012

Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

A pair of Internet heavyweights have weighed in on the NSA's PRISM program, presenting a noticeably united front—in the eyes of some, perhaps curiously so. See if you can spot the similarities (OK, OK, it's Friday evening, I'll make it easy for you; emphasis mine).

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

Google co-founder Larry Page's full statement (co-posted with David Drummond, his chief legal officer):

Dear Google users—
You may be aware of press reports alleging that Internet companies have joined a secret U.S. government program called PRISM to give the National Security Agency direct access to our servers. As Google’s CEO and Chief Legal Officer, we wanted you to have the facts.

First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday.

Second, we provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law. Our legal team reviews each and every request, and frequently pushes back when requests are overly broad or don’t follow the correct process. Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users’ data are false, period. Until this week’s reports, we had never heard of the broad type of order that Verizon received—an order that appears to have required them to hand over millions of users’ call records. We were very surprised to learn that such broad orders exist. Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false. 

Finally, this episode confirms what we have long believed—there needs to be a more transparent approach. Google has worked hard, within the confines of the current laws, to be open about the data requests we receive. We post this information on our Transparency Report whenever possible. We were the first company to do this. And, of course, we understand that the U.S. and other governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety—including sometimes by using surveillance. But the level of secrecy around the current legal procedures undermines the freedoms we all cherish.
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I want to respond personally to the outrageous press reports about PRISM:

Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn't even heard of PRISM before yesterday. 

When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if is required by law. We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure.

We strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe. It's the only way to protect everyone's civil liberties and create the safe and free society we all want over the long term.

Both men are clearly delivering the same message, so perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that both opt for similar phrasing throughout their short statements. Still, the similarities are raising some eyebrows, at least somewhat. The AtlanticWire's Rebecca Greenfield, for one, notes that the two men "went on record giving nearly the exact same denials of involvement with the NSA—one of the many questionable aspects of their remarks." Wired magazine's Kevin Poulsen notes more cautiously that the "language in their denials seems carefully chosen, and rather similar." The New York Times' Andrew Phelps, meanwhile, was among those tweeting about the "identical passages" in the remarks.

Still, pretty much everyone is stopping well short of crying conspiracy—government or otherwise—when it comes to the talking points being put forward by Zuckerberg and Page, and for good reason. Despite Zuckerberg's "personal" frame, it's hard to believe that he, like Page, didn't get some help from an in-house lawyer or nine. (It's also important to remember that, in reality, most of the phrases in question are similar, but not the same). In the end, as the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal points out, it may be more of an indication of just how careful both companies are being with their word choice at what's proving to be a sensitive time. After all, both are no doubt eager to distance themselves, and their companies, from the unfolding controversy as much as possible.

Read more on Slate about the NSA’s secret snooping programs, and follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter.

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