In a comment at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHL) site, “figleaf” wrote:

Consider further that the privately owned Facebook restricts user liberty more than any fully-owned public university website. Therefore it’s not as simple as private-sector = more liberty, public sector = less. Consider further that Facebook is openly contemptuous of “citizen” privacy or the implicit right to the property of your personal information than the U.S. Census Bureau.

I think he meant to put the word “more” before “openly.”

Later in his comment, he wrote:

Point being, I don’t really care who’s infringing liberties — infringement by government vs. private interests is still infringement

Andrew Cohen, the BHL blogger whose post figleaf was commenting on, responded, in turn, to figleaf. Cohen surprised me. He wrote:

figleaf: this comment makes me think you’re a BHL! My only limit about this is that I wouldn’t say its about maximizing liberty at root, but maximizing well-being. My well-being requires liberty. I imagine yours does as well. I imagine most people reading this blog are the same. But I also think some people are better off with less liberty than I would otherwise think ideal–and I would not want to make them worse off by “forcing them to be free.” In any case, I completely agree that it does not matter “who’s infringing liberties.” We should be concerned, I think, about any accumulations of power–whether in the hands of government officials or private parties–because we should oppose any attempts to use such power to infringe on others.

What I get from this is that neither Cohen nor figleaf sees the crucial difference between the two kinds of power.

figleaf is right that FB is contemptuous of privacy. I’m not sure that the U.S. Census Bureau is less contemptuous. Its handing over Census data to the Secret Service so the federal government could round up Japanese Americans and imprison them was pretty contemptuous of privacy, to put it mildly.

But let’s grant, for the sake of this discussion, that FB is quite contemptuous of privacy and that the Census Bureau is less so. Here’s the difference. Every single person who signs up with Facebook does so voluntarily. If FB had committed to guarding your privacy, then it would be breeching a contract by doing so. But I’ve never seen FB make that commitment.

The U.S. Census Bureau, by contrast, uses the threat of force to get its information. That’s a pretty big difference. It’s not one that I would expect, say, the New York Times, to point out. But it is a distinction that I would have expected from someone who calls himself a bleeding heart libertarian.