Zuckerberg defends Facebook's approach to free speech

CEO also cites China's censorship as barrier to social media firm operating in the country

WASHINGTON • Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg has defended the social media firm's light regulation of speech and lack of fact checking on political advertising, while citing China's censorship as a roadblock to operating in the country.

Facebook has been under fire in recent years for its lax approach to fake news reports, state-backed disinformation campaigns and violent content spread on its services, prompting calls for new regulations around the world.

In a speech on Thursday at Georgetown University filled with references to the US First Amendment and the fight for democracy, Mr Zuckerberg stood his ground, saying social media had introduced transformative avenues for speech that should not be shut down.

"People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world. It is a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society," he said.

Mr Zuckerberg framed the company's decisions around that concept, including its recent retreat from years of aggressive courtship of China. He attacked the rapidly growing Chinese-owned TikTok app, saying the short-video platform censored political protest, including in the United States, a charge the company denies.

In the leaked audio of an address to Facebook employees weeks earlier, Mr Zuckerberg spoke about TikTok as a formidable competitor, calling it the first consumer Internet product built by a Chinese tech giant to find global success.

Mr Zuckerberg effectively closed the door to China in March, when he announced his plan to pivot Facebook towards more private forms of communication and not build data centres in countries with "a track record of violating human rights like privacy or freedom of expression". He repeated his concern about data centres on Thursday.

"I wanted our services in China because I believe in connecting the whole world, and I thought we might help create a more open society," he said. "I worked hard to make this happen. But we could never come to agreement on what it would take for us to operate there, and they never let us in."

Mr Zuckerberg also defended the company's political advertising policies, saying Facebook had at one time considered banning all political ads but decided against it, erring on the side of greater expression.

That assertion was panned by critics, among them candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination who have asserted that the company should do more to address disinformation and abuse ahead of the 2020 election.

"His choice to cloak Facebook's policy in a feigned concern for free expression demonstrates how unprepared his company is for this unique moment in our history and how little it has learnt over the past few years," said Mr Bill Russo, spokesman for former US vice-president Joe Biden.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2019, with the headline 'Zuckerberg defends Facebook's approach to free speech'. Print Edition | Subscribe