TIME picks ‘wrong person’ this year

Commercial and political concerns may have led Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to beat WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.

Mark Zuckerberg would have been a better choice in 2008, when Facebook became the world’s most popular social networking website, says Jillian York  [AFP]

TIME Magazine has selected a Person of the Year faithfully every year since 1927. 

The designation has been handed both to those widely considered heroes— Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., —as well as to those who wouldn’t be considered so— Adolf Hitler, Stalin — at least not by TIME’s core demographic.

This year, the honor goes to Mark Zuckerberg, creator and CEO of Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking site. For Zuckerberg, it should be considered a dubious honor. 

Though The Social Network—the Hollywood film detailing the Facebook magnate’s life—was a roaring success, raking in $91m at the box office, Zuckerberg’s year was otherwise marred by criticism: for Facebook’s ever-changing privacy policy as well many of its other questionable practices.

Privacy concerns

There is certainly plenty of criticism to levy at TIME’s choice of Zuckerberg. For starters, and despite Facebook’s high numbers around the globe, Zuckerberg’s attitudes toward how people should be using Facebook are often Western-centric at best, dangerous for users at worst. 

Take, for example, the platform’s policy that users must sign up with their real names, a policy that’s clearly a result of Zuckerberg’s idea that having more than one identity is “an example of a lack of integrity”. 

That policy might work fine for some users, but for others, particularly those living under authoritarian regimes, such “transparency,” as Zuckerberg might call it, can be life-threatening.  And yet, most of the world still wants to use Facebook: to connect with friends and loved ones, and increasingly, for activism.

Still, some Zuckerberg-designed policies are especially threatening to activists. Just ask the moderators of an Egyptian anti-torture group hosted on Facebook: Two weeks ago, their 400,000-strong group was booted from the platform because its administrator was using a pseudonym. 

While Zuckerberg would undoubtedly defend the policy on the basis that said administrator “lacked integrity,” the truth is that he lacked a guarantee of safety if his real name was revealed.

Other issues with the social networking site affect a larger swath of users, such as the October 2010 revelation that some of the site’s third-party applications were violating Facebook’s terms by sharing information with advertisers that could be used to identify individual users, or the brouhaha that happened earlier this year when Facebook changed users’ default privacy settings.

WikiLeaks vs Facebook

Of course, for many the surprise is not so much that Zuckerberg was given the award, but that runner-up Julian Assange was not. 

Assange is undoubtedly the man of the moment, and in a sense, the whole year; though WikiLeaks’ latest release of Embassy cables has attracted a swarm of media attention, earlier releases of the Iraqi Collateral Murder video and the Afghan war logs made a huge public impact.

Up until this week, Assange seemed like a shoe-in for the award. He received by far the most votes in TIME’s user poll, coming in just over 382,026 (compared to Zuckerberg’s mere 18,353 votes).

TIME, for its part, has been clear that the Person of the Year is less an award and more recognition of a person or persons who have “done the most to influence events of the year.” 

The magazine readily admits that their editors reserve the right to disagree with the user vote, but with the US and other governments hot on Julian Assange’s tail, many are speculating that the decision was a political one. 

Though direct government pressure seems unlikely (but not impossible), the idea that TIME chose cuddly Zuckerberg over international man of mystery Assange in order to appease an increasingly belligerent US government is entirely feasible. 

Business interests

There are also, of course, financial considerations. Backlash over TIME’s choice of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 allegedly resulted in thousands of subscription cancellations. 

More than two-thirds of the American public believe that Assange should face criminal charges, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll; had TIME gone with the controversial figure anyway, they might have risked losing subscribers once again.

The biggest question of all in regard to TIME’s choice, however, is also the most benign: “why now?”  Facebook hit its peak in 2008, when it became the world’s most popular social network. 

Since then, though it remains on top, criticism against the site has only grown as privacy breach after privacy breach angers users and security advocates. Awarding Zuckerberg TIME’s top honor may have made sense two years ago, but in 2010 and in light of the world’s captivation with WikiLeaks and Assange, it now seems out of touch. 

Jillian York is a writer, blogger, and activist based in Boston. She works at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Centre for Internet & Society and is involved with Global Voices Online.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.