Facebook Inc chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg beat a familiar drum in warning that the censored version of the Internet found in China could one day be the norm globally if dominant online companies, like his, don’t fight for free speech.
Zuckerberg, who gave his own speech about free expression at Georgetown University, said that while many people take the open Internet for granted, China has become a major global player online – six of the top 10 largest Internet platforms now are Chinese, he said. What those services offer doesn’t align with the uncensored Internet most people are familiar with.
"Until recently, the Internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free-expression values,” he said to a full auditorium inside Georgetown’s Gaston Hall. "There’s no guarantee these values will win out.”
While most of China’s major Internet platforms don’t typically catch on outside of the country, Zuckerberg specifically called out TikTok, a rival social network owned by Chinese Internet giant Bytedance Inc that has broken through. TikTok, he says, doesn’t offer the same privacy or freedom to protesters or activists that Facebook’s own social networks offer. The popular short-video app has been suspected of censoring discussion of the Hong Kong protests for political reasons. "Mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US,” he said.
Zuckerberg has long wanted to bring his own social network into China – home to more than 1.3 billion would-be Facebookers – but seemed resigned that his plan might never happen.
"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.”
In a question and answer session after his speech, Zuckerberg was asked what it would take to be allowed to operate in China. He said that while the conversation always turns to censorship, and what free speech controls Facebook might have to give up, another major issue is data storage. China, he says, would require Facebook to store data from Chinese users in the country, making it hard for Facebook to protect people against unfair or unlawful government requests.
It’s a trend in other countries, too, not just in China, Zuckerberg said, and that bothers him.
"The reality is that most countries around the world do not have the same respect for human rights and rule of law that we have here in the United States,” he said. "I am worried as CEO of this company that if I make a decision to store people’s data in a country where there isn’t good rule of law, that that’s going to inevitably lead to people from the government showing up at the data center demanding access to data.”
Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives have routinely cited China as a legitimate threat to Facebook and other American businesses in recent years. Zuckerberg said last year that Facebook shouldn’t be broken up by regulators because it would pave the way for Chinese companies to dominate. David Marcus, the Facebook executive leading the company’s push into cryptocurrency and blockchain, said that if Facebook’s planned currency gets blocked by regulators, China will be there to take advantage.
Zuckerberg ended his talk on a patriotic note, highlighting the importance of defending American free speech values abroad.
"Here we have not just freedom of expression but we have rule of law,” he said. "It’s not until in some way you operate around the world that you realise just how special and unique and important some of these principles are and how important it is to stand up for these values not only here but around the world. And I’m proud to do that.” – Bloomberg