Mark Zuckerberg champions free speech while Facebook censors it

In the aftermath of the brutal killings of a dozen staff members at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo last week, rallies in support of free speech sprang up across Europe and elsewhere, most featuring the slogan “Je Suis Charlie.” Among those who spoke out against the terrorists and championed the cause of free speech was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — but as some users have pointed out, his company’s policies often don’t live up to that commitment.

The Facebook co-founder posted a long statement on Friday, in which he talked about being the subject of a death threat from an Islamic extremist in Pakistan several years ago, because the social network wouldn’t ban material that depicted the prophet Mohammed in a way that offended him. But Zuckerberg said he didn’t back down, and added that he remains committed to free speech despite such threats:

“We stood up for this because different voices — even if they’re sometimes offensive — can make the world a better and more interesting place. Facebook has always been a place where people across the world share their views and ideas. We follow the laws in each country, but we never let one country or group of people dictate what people can share.”

Content routinely removed

It didn’t take long before someone questioned the Facebook CEO on his commitment, however: when Zuckerberg posted a follow-up on Sunday night about the marches in Paris and elsewhere and the value of being connected, a reader noted that Facebook had removed a comment from a user in Pakistan that questioned the limits of free expression when it is used for racism or other offensive ideologies.

To his credit, the Facebook CEO said that the comment was likely removed in error, and he asked a Facebook staffer — vice-president Justin Osofsky — to look into it. Several hours later, as The Guardian noted in a post, Osofsky said that Facebook had made a mistake in removing the comment and that it would be reinstated:

Facebook comment screenshot

While that particular comment may have been removed in error, however, Facebook has become notorious for removing content of all kinds — in many cases without ever saying why it was removed. The social network seems to have a thing about breastfeeding photos, for example, which are still routinely removed, as well as content related to a number of dissident groups or anything that trips its standard filter for violence and other offensive content.

As many Facebook supporters like to point out, the company is a private entity and therefore isn’t bound by the First Amendment (which only applies to restrictions on free speech by the government), and it also has a duty to abide by the laws of the countries in which it operates, as Zuckerberg noted in his post. But the social network goes above and beyond those duties routinely, despite its founder’s rhetoric about the value of free speech.

Playing nice with governments

As Eliot “Brown Moses” Higgins has pointed out, Facebook has removed posts and even entire pages created by dissident groups in Syria, many of which were designed to record the outcome of attacks by the army on innocent civilians — including some using chemical weapons. By removing those posts and pages, Higgins notes, Facebook has actually destroyed an important part of the historical record of criminal behavior by the Syrian government.

Facebook has also been accused of removing content related to dissident activity in China. And in a more recent example, the network removed content relating to a rally in Russia in support of opponents to President Vladimir Putin, after pressure from the Russian government. While Facebook is open to such pressure just as Google and other companies are, it’s interesting to look at the difference between how a company like Twitter responds to similar requests, compared with how Facebook does.

When Twitter was asked by the Pakistani government to remove access to posts that allegedly broke the law, it did so, but then reinstated them later after the government failed to convince the company that removing them was justified. And while Twitter has resisted attempts by the Turkish government to get information on dissidents who use the network or to block content the authorities don’t like, Turkey has boasted about its friendly relationship with Facebook.

Facebook can be a powerful force for free speech, as we saw during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere, and I have no doubt that Zuckerberg is personally sincere when he champions the cause of free speech and not submitting to violent extremists. But the company is going to have to do a better job of following through on those principles in places like Turkey and Pakistan and Russia, if it wants to be believed.