I’m a week late to this, but I was just reading Mark Zuckerberg’s personal announcement of changes to Facebook’s Community Standards and the release of a new government requests report. Read it in its entirety; it’s a real treat and a key to understanding the warped bubble that is Silicon Valley.
It’s also rather long, so instead of going line-by-line, I’m going to pick apart the pieces I find the most troubling, starting with:
As difficult questions arise about the limits of what people can share, we have a single guiding principle:
We want to give the most voice to the most people.
Having a voice is not some absolute state. It’s not the case that you either have a voice or you don’t. It’s not black and white. When you have access to the internet, you have more voice. When you have better tools for sharing, you have more voice. When you have fewer laws limiting your speech, you have more voice. When you do not live in fear of social isolation or violence if you express yourself, you have more voice.
There’s nothing particularly troubling about this by itself, but as it’s the philosophy that underpins all of Facebook’s policy decisions, it’s an important read. If your aim is to provide the most voice (whatever that means) to the most diverse set of people (the world), then of course you’re not going to stand for free expression, because some people—in nearly every place on earth—won’t want to use a service that allows for that level of openness. Since Facebook’s bottom line is money, Facebook knows why this is important.
Included amongst the things Zuckerberg sees as helping provide a voice to all people are “protecting you from bullying and harassment, so you feel safe expressing yourself” and “pushing back on illegal government requests to censor you and restrict your expression” (bold is mine).
So let’s talk about that latter one. It’s notable that Zuckerberg wrote illegal government requests. As it stands, Facebook is pretty damn compliant with government requests, whether or not they have an obligation to comply in a given jurisdiction. That is to say, while Facebook is indeed legally obligated to comply in a country where it has an office, such as France or Brazil, it’s really not obligated to do so in Pakistan, Russia, or Turkey, where it does not. And yet, it does comply, considerably: Between July and December of 2014, Facebook took down 3,624 pieces of content in Turkey; and 55 and 54 in Pakistan and Russia, respectively.
In other words, one could argue that Facebook isn’t doing a whole lot to give Turks a voice.
Ah, but Zuck disagrees. He says:
Some people say we should ignore government orders requiring us to restrict people’s voice, even if that means the whole service would be blocked in those countries. I don’t think that’s right. I believe we have a responsibility to the millions of people in these countries who rely on Facebook to stay in touch with their friends and family every day.
Ha, some people.
Anyway, what Zuckerberg is essentially saying here is that it’s more important that Turks have access to Facebook than that Facebook stand up to absurd, outdated, draconian Turkish laws—that every Turk I’ve ever met thinks are ridiculous—and in turn, stand up for free speech. And then he veers into the absurd:
If we ignored a lawful government order and then we were blocked, all of these people’s voices would be muted, and whatever content the government believed was illegal would be blocked anyway. This is a matter of giving the most voice to the most people.
If Facebook got blocked in Turkey, all of those poor Turks’ voices would be muted, oh my! What Zuckerberg is forgetting here, in all his arrogance, is that Facebook isn’t the Internet. Even if he wants it to be.
Then, he says:
Others argue that Facebook getting blocked might result in less voice for people in the short run but a country changing its laws over time. Unfortunately, there are few, if any, examples of a company withdrawing from a country leading to a change in laws restricting expression. On the other hand, there are many examples of how enabling people to connect and share helps make things better in a society.
I’ve argued that too. And he is right that there are few examples of companies withdrawing from a country and that resulting in a change to laws restricting expression. But Zuckerberg is conflating withdrawal from a country—that is, the physical withdrawal of employees and servers, and the closure of an office—with merely not complying where one is not legally obligated to do so. See, Facebook was never required to comply in Pakistan, or Turkey, or Russia. And had it not complied when those first requests rolled in, they may never have escalated, and Facebook may or may not have gotten blocked. And had it been blocked, protests may have occurred (as they did in Tunisia in 2008), and the government may have ended up pulling back, sooner or later. But it did comply, and as a result, the requests keep coming.
It’s kind of incredible to me that the CEO of Facebook doesn’t understand this crucial difference.
Finally—and this one really gets me—Zuckerberg demonstrates the principles of cultural relativism:
We also need to recognize the different legal and cultural environments in which we operate. Every country has laws limiting certain expression, and these are often shaped by culture and history. For example, Holocaust denial is prohibited in Germany. Content that defames Atatürk is illegal in Turkey. In many Muslim countries, content regarded as blasphemous is banned as well.
You can recognize different legal and cultural environments without respecting them. For what it’s worth, I think Germany’s laws (which are more specific than “Holocaust denial”) are about as useless as Turkey’s on this, but Facebook does have offices here. Nevertheless, Zuckerberg appears to look at the world and its various laws, see them, and accept them as “cultural difference.” Nevermind that Turkey, Russia, and Pakistan are barely hanging on as democracies. Nevermind that the people of those countries might have different priorities than their governments. Quite a change from his post-“Arab Spring” rhetoric, eh?