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Good Luck Parsing Your Conflicted Feelings About Edward Snowden, Silicon Valley

Trading in your lucrative contractor gig is a long, long way from FWD.us.
Yesterday's rally.

Yesterday’s rally.

At yesterday’s rally to support NSA leaker Edward Snowden, a software engineer who identified himself only as Michael huddled under Union Square subway entrance (just out of the pouring rain). “The fact that we have this man coming out now puts a face on this,” he said. “The human element is what’s most important, because most people think of these big surveillance things as these impassive, cold structures, but they’re the creation of humans, they’re the creation of people like me and you and all of us and there is a moral equation to all of that.”

He gestured to the northern edge of the park.

“Even in New York City, Union Square Ventures is right over there, which funded Tumblr, which is now owned by Yahoo, which is one of the companies that reported back to PRISM.”

But not everyone’s so sure of their feelings about Mr. Snowden. The occasional 1984 quote from Fred Wilson notwithstanding, the industry’s position in this whole mess is awfully conflicted.

On paper, Mr. Snowden makes a perfect Internet cause célèbre. He’s a systems administrator who one day ducked out of work and hopped on a flight for Hong Kong, ready to hand the goods over to the Guardian. His laptop sports a big Electronic Freedom Frontier sticker. His justification for his revelations is ready-made for Hacker News: “I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

Basically, he’s all of Reddit’s most romantic, self-flattering ideas about its own membership, distilled into one man. (He even name-checked the site in his big reveal for the Guardian.) 

But Mr. Snowden’s very existence is also a challenge to the self-styled disruptors of the tech world, the smooth talkers who take the stage at demo days and press conferences. His act (whether you see it as brave, foolhardy or prison-worthy) rips the Guy Fawkes mask right off the causal talk of “hacking” and “changing the world.” Throwing away your six-figure Booz Allen Hamilton salary for a life on the lam is the diametric opposite of the cynicism of Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us, with its ANWR drilling-friendly ads and Rush Limbaugh airtime.

The New Digital Age, by Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas guy Jared Cohen, isn’t exactly team radical transparency, either: “There is always going to be someone with bad judgment who releases information that will get people killed,” they write of Wikileaks, for instance.

Here, there’s already plenty of ready-made justifications for dismissing him, like this one from Jeffrey Toobin at the New Yorker, which labeled Mr. Snowden “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” Branch founder Josh Miller is already half way to convinced: “I know the tech community wants to rally around Snowden but I’m struggling to find a flaw in @JeffreyToobin‘s POV,” he tweeted yesterday.

And while the companies named in the PRISM revelations have denied they give the NSA “direct access” for their data mining, let’s face it, they’ve already built pretty effective surveillance machines. The information they collect is just used to sell our eyeballs to advertisers, rather than rat out the average American citizen to the authorities. Now Google and Facebook want the right to disclose FISA demands for information, but of course they’ll still hand it over, as required by law.

Still, concerned as he sounded, Michael struck a vaguely optimistic note. “The Internet of Things is the future,” he explained. “We need to protect our privacy and also understand the great responsibility that we have. That’s why I’m out here as a software engineer.”

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com