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Google Inc (GOOG), Facebook Inc (FB): Is Edward Snowden a Hero or a Villain?

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The life of Edward Snowden would make for a pretty good spy thriller. The former technical contractor for the National Security Agency has thrilled and chilled the world with disclosures of sensitive documents, unveiling a vast system of government monitoring across phone lines and online services. Brad Thor and Tom Clancy are probably getting their first drafts ready as we speak.

But would Snowden be the hero or the international supervillain in these books?

You’ll find lots of people arguing for each of the opposing views. Here’s how the core arguments break down:

Villain Hero
When Snowden stole and distributed these documents, he broke the law and became a traitor to America herself. He needs to be punished, and harshly. Snowden uncovered some deeply uncomfortable truths and should be protected the same way a corporate whistleblower would.
Snowden is no better than the Anonymous hacker group, or Wikileaks, or your average KGB agent. He took a big personal risk on behalf of ordinary Americans, and should be rewarded like a hero.
Top-secret documents are secret for a reason, after all. These files weren’t secret because the life of American operatives depend on them — they’re just too embarrassing for everyone involved.
Snowden is making it harder to catch terrorists and other threats to national security. Snowden is making it harder for the American government to spy on American citizens.

Love it or hate it
There’s hardly any middle ground here. Either you hate Snowden and his actions, or you simply love what he did. You probably feel strongly about this yourself, dear reader — but I can’t predict which way you’re leaning. Some opinion polls tilt in Snowden’s favor and others lean the other way — always by slim margins. Feel free to join the debate in the comments box below.

Google Inc (GOOG)

Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) responded to Snowden’s leaks by pushing back against the government procedures he described. Big G CEO Larry Page took exception to some of the leaked claims in a blog post titled, “What the …?” Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t go for Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG)’s titular theatrics but said that the press reports are “outrageous” and wrong in many respects.

Both companies explained that they don’t provide blanket access to their data for the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, or anyone else. Instead, they review each information request by hand and comply only if required by law. And then there are laws restricting them from telling us about it. A week after the data surveillance leak, both Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) and Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) had petitioned Congress to lift those restrictions. Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) joined the request as well.

Why these three musketeers?
Now, Facebook absolutely depends on the trust of its users. The core service is a collection of private information, after all. Sure, many Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) posts are meant to be seen and shared, but far from all of it. There are private chat sessions, contact data, and posts aimed at particular audiences via Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB)’s privacy attributes. The company has access to treasure troves of highly private information that nobody wants to share with the press, with Uncle Sam, or with anyone else.

Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) also has plenty of incentive to keep this debate in the open but user information close to the vest. Some people already avoid Google because they don’t like how tightly its search services tie into advertising efforts. If you think Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) would unscrupulously hand over sensitive user information or personal search patterns to the first goon that comes a-knocking, alternative search engines are only a click away.

Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) is a less clear-cut case of self-serving interest. Yes, its Bing catalog of search tools and other online services does fall under the same trust-based umbrella as Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) and Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG). But it’s a very small part of Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT)’s huge software-centric business model. I’m a little bit surprised to see Redmond take a stand for privacy and transparency when it’s not crucial to the business.

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