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Facebook vs free speech

Mark Zuckerberg has been quite the advocate for the right to free speech in the wake of last week’s attack on Charlie Hebdo, although his description of Facebook as “a service where you can speak freely without fear of violence” clashes somewhat with the network’s capitulation to censorship laws in certain countries.


Zuckerberg’s support of Charlie Hebdo was questioned during a recent Q&A session in Colombia; specifically, he was asked why he has taken an interest in this specific incident as opposed to other terrorist attacks. “This was specifically about people’s freedom of expression and ability to say what they want,” he says. “That really gets to the core of what Facebook and the internet are, I think, and what we’re all here to do. We really stand up and try to make it so that everyone can have as much of a voice as possible.”

Unless, of course, your voice is causing trouble for your local government; then Facebook will tell you to hush. The social network has a less-than-stellar record when it comes to removing “contested” content; last year it cooperated with the Turkish government and fielded censorship requests, while its peers Twitter and YouTube were shut down entirely. According to The New York Times, “free speech activists view Facebook, the world’s largest social network with 1.35 billion monthly users, as the company most inclined to work with governments and do whatever is necessary to keep its service up and running.”

Zuckerberg defends this decision, however, by stating that Facebook can deliver the most benefit to its users if it stays online in some shape or form. While he concedes that in an ideal world there would be fewer censorship laws to contend with, he and his company have to be realistic. “I can’t think of many examples in history where a company not operating or shutting down in a country in protest to a law like that has actually changed the law,” he says. “However, there are a lot of examples that I can think of where technology operating in a place, whether it’s telephones or the internet, enables a lot of opportunities for people… To stay connected to the people they love and their family and their friends, have business opportunities and growth in the economy and improvement in people’s lives. So I think overwhelmingly our responsibility is to continue pushing to give as many people the ability to share as much possible.”

He maintains that his team are incredibly reluctant to remove content unless they deem it absolutely necessary, and treat each censorship request they receive with equal seriousness. It’s a balancing act, or “very tricky calculus” as Zuckerberg puts it, between honouring the company’s commitment to its users and to free expression, and avoiding flouting the law and running the subsequent risk of being shut down entirely.

Of course, a big company like Facebook is always going to be seen as ‘the man’ by some, and Zuckerberg is prepared for that. “Some people say we want to be operating in every country because it’s good for our business. I want to push back on that,” he says. “The reality is we’re not operating in every country today. There are several countries we’re not in, and our business is doing just fine. Believe me, we’re good. The reality is if we got blocked in a few more countries, that probably wouldn’t affect our business very much, so this is really about our mission and our philosophy, not about some kind of short-term business decision.”

The debate over censorship isn’t one that is likely to die down any time soon; Facebook’s pragmatic cooperation (some would say collusion) with governments will continue to be a bone of contention for free speech activists long after the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ posts have been buried in everybody’s Twitter feeds.

Even in France, where cries for ‘liberté’ have been echoing on the streets, it is possible to get into trouble with the law over what you say online. Comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala was arrested this week after posting a Facebook status expressing sympathy with the Charlie Hebdo attackers, sparking even more arguments over what is and isn’t acceptable to say on social media.

Personally, I think I’ll stick to live-tweeting weekend TV.


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