Facebook Wants You to Know it Loves Free Speech (Except When it Doesn't)

By Kate Knibbs on at

Two weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg wrote an impassioned post about the importance of free speech following the Charlie Hebdo killings. This week, in a total about-face, Facebook is censoring images of the Prophet Muhammad in Turkey, including images similar to the Hebdo cartoons. Come on.

After a Turkish court ordered Facebook to take down pages due to blasphemy, putting the social network in a tough position: Either disobey the law and risk being banned outright, or it allow the censorship its founder just decried. Facebook complied.

Here's Zuckerberg's statement, in which he bristled against the idea of extremists dictating what people share:

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 across the world.

Yet as I reflect on yesterday's attack and my own experience with extremism, this is what we all need to reject — a group of extremists trying to silence the voices and opinions of everyone else around the world.

I won't let that happen on Facebook. I'm committed to building a service where you can speak freely without fear of violence.

It looks awfully hollow reading it with the knowledge that Facebook kowtowed to extremism in the same month it was written. It does, however, fit with what Zuckerberg said in a recent Q&A about freedom of speech. Josh Constine paraphrased the remarks on why Facebook operates in countries that censor:

I can't think of many examples in history when a company not shutting down in the face of a law and getting banned helped change that law. But continuing to operate can help the country in other ways, such as allowing people to connect with loved ones, learn, and find jobs. So I think overwhelmingly our responsibility is to continue operating.

Alright, fine. If Zuckerberg believes it'll do more harm than good to allow censorship because people need his social network (and Facebook needs the ad money?), that's shitty but his prerogative. And the thing is, this isn't really about Turkey. It's about China. Openly defying an international government's censorship requests could seriously unravel Facebook's attempts to get unblocked in China's huge and potentially lucrative market.

But it's dissembling to claim you're staunchly committed to free speech despite extremists if you're really mostly committed to continuing to operate despite censorship. Especially since people in countries that block Facebook are often still able to log on using VPNs and other workarounds. This is the case in Iran, where nearly 60% of Iranians use Facebook despite a ban.

The big issue isn't that Turkish people won't be able to access Facebook if Turkey blocks it. Very recent history indicates just how easy it is for people in Turkey to work around social media bans—Twitter traffic reportedly increased when Turkey last blocked it! So claiming Facebook has a responsibility to stay operating that is greater than its responsibility to free speech is particularly strange in this case, when Zuckerberg must know that most people in Turkey would not suddenly lose access in any meaningful way.

So what's this about then?

Those Hebdo cartoons were infantile and racist. They punched down at a group of people consistently discriminated against and abused in France. But censoring images like them at the request of a government notorious for punishing dissenting and offensive speech—a government led by a man who considers social media sites evil—is not a strong move. It doesn't matter how offensive or inoffensive these images are. It doesn't matter that it could result in a ban. If you support free speech, support free speech.