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.