Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has defended his decision to condemn the recent terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine on free speech grounds, despite his company’s willingness to censor some content.
Zuckerberg’s status update on 9 January promising “a service where you can speak freely without fear of violence” sparked a debate about Facebook’s own censorship, from breastfeeding photos to a post by Pakistani actor Hamza Ali Abbass that questioned the value of “insulting” speech.
Unsurprisingly, the subject of his Charlie Hebdo post came up during Zuckerberg’s latest public question and answer session, held this week in Colombia where Facebook is launching its Internet.org initiative to get more people online.
He was asked why he had spoken out about the Charlie Hebdo attack, but not about other violent events around the world, including in Iraq and Palestine.
“It wasn’t just a terrorist attack about just trying to do some damage and make people afraid and hurt people. This was specifically about people’s freedom of expression and ability to say what they want,” said Zuckerberg.
Although he took pains to stress that all terrorist incidents are “really horrible”, Zuckerberg said he spoke out about Charlie Hebdo because he saw it as an attack of freedom of expression, and so particularly relevant to Facebook.
“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,” he said.
“There are limits and restrictions on these things, but across the board we generally are always trying to fight to help as many people as possible share as much as they want. This event just seemed like an event where people needed to come together not only to fight back against terrorism... but also to stand up for giving everyone in the world a voice.”
‘In an ideal world there would be way fewer laws restricting speech’
A follow-up question from a member of the audience at the Q&A asked whether Facebook would break the law in countries where free speech is restricted, to defend those principles.
“One of the big questions that we struggle with: in an ideal world there would be way fewer laws restricting speech,” he said. “The reality is most countries do actually have laws restricting one point of speech or another... So the real question is how do you navigate this?”
Zuckerberg said that Facebook resists breaking the law in countries purely on a point of principle of defending free speech.
“The real question we weigh is does that actually give more people the ability to express more things? And the problem is if you break the law in a country, then oftentimes that country will just block the whole service entirely,” he said.
“Which then makes it that millions of people are now deprived of the tools that they were using to communicate with their friends and their family and to express as much as possible. So it becomes a very tricky calculus.”
Zuckerberg said that Facebook tries to “push back” on requests to block content, reviewing every request to ensure it’s within the laws of that country.
“I can’t think of many examples in history where a company not operating or shutting down in a country in protest at a law like that has actually changed the law. However, here are a lot of examples that I can think of where a technology operating in a place, whether it’s telephones or the internet, enables a lot of opportunities for people in those places,” he said.
“The opportunity 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 as possible.”
Zuckerberg hit back at criticism that Facebook’s determination to stay operating in countries where free speech is restricted is more about the growth of its business, though.
“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. 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,” he said.
“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.”
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Thursday 15th January 2015 15.58 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010