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Facebook worries about “too much free speech”

April 22, 2011

Over this past weekend, there was yet another Facebook censorship controversy, this one centering on the apparently arbitrary removal of a photo depicting a gay kiss. Outraged Facebook users mobilized, launching virtual gay kiss-ins on the site. The incident drew media attention, and within three days, an embarrassed Facebook issued an apology, claiming that the photo had been removed in error.

The very next day, the Wall Street Journal reported on the company’s lobbying efforts in Washington and its plans to expand its service to China. How does Facebook intend to confront the problem of Chinese government interference with online political speech? Here’s a trial balloon:

“Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others,” Adam Conner, a Facebook lobbyist, told the Journal. “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,” he said.

So far, Mark Zuckerberg, Time’s “Man of the Year” hasn’t weighed in on Conner’s controversial remarks. Admittedly, he had his hands full yesterday with an office visit from President Barack Obama, another leader with an ambivalent relationship to freedom of speech.

Before deciding on a deal with China, Zuckerberg might want to take a long hard look at these images from the streets of Egypt and Tunisia, where Facebook played a key role in coordinating demonstrations. The Jasmine Revolution sweeping through the Arab world has Chinese leaders so spooked that they’ve actually blocked the word “jasmine” on the country’s internet filters.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg seems intent on cramming the entire world inside his walled garden. While monetizing our friendships and selling our private data, he plays the part of a political power broker, feting war criminals in Palo Alto, and cozying up to dictators in China. Given his track record, I think it’s unlikely he’ll commit to defending the free speech of his users, if there’s big money or political clout at stake.

I know that calls to quit Facebook typically fall on deaf ears. The site has become so central to many peoples’ lives, that they can barely imagine a life without it. This was certainly the case with me, up until I was banned last November.

You might say, so what? Don’t people choose to be on Facebook? If you don’t like it, go somewhere else. The problem with this argument is that, in certain contexts, not having a Facebook account is pretty close to not existing at all. Employers use Facebook to screen job candidates. In some cases, no profile (or a poorly managed one) likely means no job. In industries which demand networking, like Hollywood, not having a Facebook profile, is sort of like not having a business card in Japan. It’s tantamount to being a non-person. Good luck getting work without having a “web presence.” If you run any kind of business, it’s not even an option. You need to have a Facebook page to be competitive. What kind of meaningful choice do we have not to participate when such a monopoly exists?

And what if you want to use Facebook, but don’t play by their arbitrary rules? Just ask  Chinese dissident Zhao Jing who writes under the pen name Michael Anti. He was thrown off the site for violating Facebook’s “real name” policy. Anti wryly noted that even Zuckerberg’s dog has a Facebook fan page. The “real name” policy, as Aaron Bady writes in this brilliant essay, is rooted in a myopic and privileged notion of a singular transparent identity. Bady writes:

“Radical transparency,” as these people put it, means opening everyone up to everyone else’s surveillance, but that’s precisely the opposite of a democratizing move if the underlying power relations remain, as they certainly do.


I think this is the heart of it. Facebook may be a great meeting point for those fighting for democracy, but the company itself is not grounded in democratic values. Like Bahrain or Saudia Arabia, Facebook is more like a privately owned kingdom (if those countries had a population of 600 million people.) Like a kingdom, Facebook’s primary values are the accumulation of wealth and power among an elite group of people. And like a kingdom, it sometimes acts in arbitrary ways, censoring certain kinds of speech without explanation. It changes the rules of citizenship, silently in some cases. In others, with long-winded decrees about changes to its Terms Of Use.

Yes, Facebook is a powerful tool. But, so too is Mark Zuckerberg. And when he’s done giving our cyber selves an enhanced patdown, juiced the social graph for every last dime and brought a dumber, less free version of Facebook to China, we might be left asking why we agreed to play in his walled garden for so long. Sure, we can have our gay kiss-ins and our virtual protests, but the only real threat to this royal nonsense is to deactivate.

Join me?

  • http://profiles.google.com/kelvin.pittman Kelvin Pittman

    ‘You might say, “So What?” Don’t people choose to be on Facebook? If you don’t like it, go somewhere else. The problem with this argument is that, in certain contexts, not having a Facebook account is pretty close to not existing at all.’

    Quoted for truth!

  • P_cleary

    Well, let me note that although I post controversial thoughts sometimes, I definitely feel a chilling effect on free speech, precisely because facebook is a surveillance tool rather than a forum fostering an open society. It is a site made of closed networks, so it’s a paradox to claim that leads to more openness – especially when the overall view of such networks is seen by the privileged people who own facebook. It’s like a non-transparent version of Muckety. Your analogy of facebook pages as a business card make sense, but the marketing and PR tools it offers to networking individuals and businesses offer even bigger advantages than low tech business cards. You could say facebook corporate plays a balancing act by giving its users empowering tools while exacting a toll on their privacy – literally throwing ads in users’ faces that are drawn from data mining profiles. I think they run the risk of blowing that balancing act big time over one “over the line!” move; then we could see a massive deactivation” – how Orwellian is that term?

  • http://twitter.com/austingmackell Austin G Mackell

    Great article, about something that concerns me deeply… when does Diaspora get up and running?

  • http://profiles.google.com/yar.natasha Natasha Yar-Routh

    I deleted my Facebook account because of a vague feeling of creepiness about Facebook. You have given eloquent form  to my vague feelings, thank you

  • http://www.cygnismedia.com/social-media-application/facebook-application-development.html Facebook App Development

    Facebook is a social media and it connect  the people so please avoid these picture to paste on face book.Thanks

  • Mario Gildo

     Sure we can avoid that when straight men stop posting pictures kissing their girlfriends. You are not in charge to tell anyone what values are right or wrong.

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