Facebook Throws Free Speech Under the Bus

A couple months ago I wrote a post suggesting that in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution, major online players like Facebook and Google should embrace their role as catalysts for political change by helping activists create tools for organizing protests and monitoring their own governments. But Facebook, at least, appears determined to turn its back on the cause of freedom in countries suffering under authoritarian governments.

The Internet is abuzz about Facebook lobbyist Adam Connor's remarks, quoted by the Wall Street Journal, to the effect that "Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others," adding, "We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we're allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven't experienced it before." Facebook's startlingly unprincipled stance comes as the social network is reportedly trying to break into the Chinese market -- a formidable goal that will require reassuring the Chinese government that Facebook won't make waves in China like it did, say, in Egypt.

Thus, as I feared, Facebook seems to be on the point of dispensing with the pretense of idealism and showing itself to be, in maturity, a mundane and uninspiring institution -- amoral, insubstantial, and lacking commitment to any ideals worthy of the name. Its apparent readiness to betray free speech is especially noteworthy considering that the oft-quoted interests of founder Mark Zuckerberg include "openness, making things that help people connect and share what's important to them." Except their political opinions, I guess? Even worse is the implication that some people aren't "ready" for free speech -- a notion more often heard from dictators themselves.

Of course it's easy to criticize companies for making nice with totalitarian regimes, and there are plenty of easy targets on that score: most big U.S. companies either make or sell products in China, and as the world's second-largest economy, it offers businesses obvious potential for rapid growth overseas.

But giving Facebook a pass on these grounds misses a critical difference between the social network and other types of business. Where these other companies deal in material goods with no overt political meaning, Facebook deals in human beings, allowing individuals to express their hopes and dreams, pursue relationships, and communicate with peers about issues of shared relevance. For that reason, any compromise by Facebook with the Chinese government will necessarily be a betrayal of its core values.

In addition to being tawdry, this strategy is also unrealistic and probably futile: Chinese competitors already dominate the domestic social network market, and if Facebook is forced to compromise its commitment to free speech, there will be little to recommend it over rivals which do the same.
2 comments about "Facebook Throws Free Speech Under the Bus".
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  1. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, April 21, 2011 at 5:16 p.m.

    Facebook which is dying a slow death in by time of IPO will be outed as a complete disaster for investors (I have all the proof nothing is secret) you would think would embrace free speech. As I countered to you Erik Social Media has not started any revolutions and mostly has been used by people involved to get news out of their countries since 99% of the populace that is revolting are poor and have no computers or access to Social Media. While Cell Phones and SMS Text and Clandestine Meetings obviously were the technologies used in conjunction with decades of oppression. These revolts would of happened no matter what. No different that the US revolution or French Revolution.

    That mouthful said. Facebook is DESPERATE for growth and revenue. They have been getting body blow after body blow of bad news for all their initiatives and yet you would think holding the line on Free Speech would gain it good press and good will with these countries. Imagine a country where 99% of the population has no Facebook, and when they finally rise up and have more money and can choose a network they will look at Facebook as a mouth piece of the oppressors vs the liberators. But hey you and i never took a billion dollars from mafia syndicates like Zuckerberg did and trust me when FB crashes if they don't get their money back he might be buried next to Hoffa.

  2. Andre Szykier from maps capital management, April 21, 2011 at 10:42 p.m.

    Eric and Chief Alien (huh?) nailed it. Enough said.

    What Facebook wants is the social media (China only) presence in partnerships with Tencent and/or Baidu.
    Won't happen because both the latter are on the do-not-trust list of the China government who want to have an internet enabled population but with the proviso of being able to monitor and possibly control broadcast, web and mobile content. This is their nationwide initiative that few people are aware of (disclosure: I am involved with implementing an integrated solution in conjunction with provincial cable operators).

    Facebook would never allow such a social media model because the political blowback would hurt them elsewhere. It is another indication of the immaturity of Facebook management and their lack of experience in dealing with cross cultural issues.

    I wish them well but i would put my money on LinkedIn which has a greater value proposition (business and networking of professionals). Then again, they are not that much smarter in understanding how SM can be leveraged into a revenue model with advertisers and with subscribers for a fee.

    Social media is an experiment of virtual connections. Facebook is more of a parking lot where people come to do something but what's missing is the venue, the shopping mall, the place to engage. Give it time but

    Facebook will need to become a richer place to congregate. For now, its more of a desert with a few gas stations, fast food places and not much else.

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