Old and busted: “Je suis Charlie!” Two weeks ago, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to defend free speech on his Facebook platform. “We all need to reject a group of extremists trying to silence the voices and opinions of everyone else,” Zuckerberg posted to his own page.
New hotness: Preserving income streams by complying with censorship based on extremists in foreign governments.
Only two weeks after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a strongly worded #JeSuisCharlie statement on the importance of free speech, Facebook has agreed to censor images of the prophet Muhammad in Turkey — including the very type of image that precipitated the Charlie Hebdo attack.
It’s an illustration, perhaps, of how extremely complicated and nuanced issues of online speech really are.
Actually, it’s not a new hotness at all for Zuckerberg. He has a habit of talking big about free speech and then knuckling under to authoritarian governments, writes Caitlin Dewey for the Washington Post:
Just this December, Facebook agreed to censor the page of Russia’s leading Putin critic, Alexei Navalny, at the request of Russian Internet regulators. (It is a sign, the Post’s Michael Birnbaum wrote from Moscow, of “new limits on Facebook’s ability to serve as a platform for political opposition movements.”) Critics have previously accused the site of taking down pages tied to dissidents in Syria and China; the International Campaign for Tibet is currently circulating a petition against alleged Facebook censorship, which has been signed more than 20,000 times.
While Facebook doesn’t technically operate in China, it has made several recent overtures to Chinese politicians and Internet regulators — overtures that signal, if tacitly, an interest in bringing a (highly censored) Facebook to China’s 648 million Internet-users.
According to Facebook’s own accounting, Turkey submitted the second-most demands for censorship in the first half of 2014, slightly ahead of Pakistan and far behind India. Dewey concedes that Facebook has to comply with the laws of each country in which it operates, just as any other corporation must do. However, the disconnect between Zuckerberg’s declaration of independence and the actions of his company in acquiescing to censorship “is a little disingenuous, to say the least.”
John Hayward slams Zuckerberg for his hypocrisy, too:
Presumably if Zuckerberg feels the need to square Facebook’s bow to censorship with his earlier statement, he’ll say something about how he’s not going to let courts in Turkey censor the entire world’s access to material that offends the religious sensibilities of the one religion on Earth whose sensibilities matter to Western elites. (Well, okay, two, if you count the Church of Global Warming, but the elites all belong to that faith tradition.) He’s only letting Turkish courts deprive Turks of free speech, so he can be Charlie in most other countries… for the time being. …
Apologists will say that Facebook has little choice but to comply when a foreign government threatens to cut them off entirely, as Turkey did. They’ll say it’s better to have regulated Facebook delivering a little taste of global free expression to the masses than no Facebook at all. (Is there any real evidence that’s working, by the way? Are there any authoritarian regimes around the world that have significantly cracked because Western web pages are made available to their populace under heavy government censorship?)
That increasingly sounds like the false invocation of principle to cover greed and cowardice. There’s nothing “nuanced” or “extremely complicated” about this at all. It’s simple, pure thuggery, and it works. It works because the price of free expression can be increased until speakers agree to silence. Violence is but one of several tools useful for such operations. Even when other tools are employed, it is helpful for the oppressor to have the credible menace of violence hanging in the background, to make those other instruments look nice and sharp.
As radical Islam has risen to cast its long shadow across the Western world over the last few decades, it has grown increasingly clear that Western values of free speech and religious tolerance are negotiable. We don’t even drive an especially hard bargain, because the ideology of our Ruling Class makes it difficult for them to discuss defiance in frank terms. They will not call the shadow by its proper name, so they bring only feeble intellectual illumination to the battle against it.
We had a similar debate after Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco made it easier for China to censor Internet communications and track dissenters in the previous decade. All of the companies pushed back on that accusation, but the issue dogged them for years, and to some extent still does. The lure of those large markets and potentially massive profits overcame their principles on free speech and opposition to censorship, or at least put them in a curious perspective.
This is the same issue in a different and more violent context. If Zuckerberg wants to extend Facebook to those markets by complying with censorship regimes, that’s certainly his choice. But Dewey hits the nail on the head: he can’t do that while claiming Je suis Charlie and painting himself as the hero who will “never let one country or group of people dictate what people can share across the world.” Vous êtes hypocrite, monsieur.