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Mark Zuckerberg Calls Facebook a Free-Speech Zone as Critics Demand More Restrictions

October 17, 2019, 9:18 PM UTC

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emphasized his social network’s role as a vehicle for free expression during a speech on Thursday, despite mounting criticism about the service being used to spread hate and disinformation.

His comments at Georgetown University, in Washington DC., pushed back against complaints that Facebook has failed to police its platform, protect user data, and remain politically neutral.

“We can either continue to stand for freedom of expression, understanding its messiness … or we can decide that the cost is simply too great,” he said. “I believe we must continue to stand for freedom of expression.”

The speech, an unusual move by Zuckerberg, who rarely gives formal addresses, comes as politicians from both parties are calling for more oversight of Big Tech companies like Facebook. It also follows a controversial decision by the company against removing an ad by President Donald Trump’s campaign that alleged, without evidence, that Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden engaged in improper dealings in Ukraine.

Bill Russo, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, responded to Zuckerberg’s speech by saying: “Zuckerberg attempted to use the Constitution as a shield for his company’s bottom line, and 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 learned over the past few years.”

On Thursday, Zuckerberg hammered away at the idea that the current heightened political tensions require Facebook to crack down on what users post.

“I would push back on the characterization that more people having a voice is bad for democracy,” Zuckerberg said. “I find it very concerning that it seems like there are more people prioritizing the political outcomes they want than more people having a voice.”

The last couple of years have been a “learning experience” for Facebook, he said. During that time, the company has been buffeted by criticism for letting its service be used to promote genocide in Myanmar and to create fake accounts to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Zuckerberg said removing dangerous content, like posts promoting terrorism, is a priority. But he asked, “The question is where do you draw the line?” 

In general, Zuckerberg says Facebook lets people express opposing opinions, but bans speech that could put people in danger. However, implementing the policy is complicated because Facebook must determine what could actually lead to harmful outcomes—all while trying to understand the nuance of 100 languages.

As a result, the company has shifted its focus from policing the content that is posted to reviewing whether the person who did the posting is who they say they are, Zuckerberg said.

“Much of the content that those Russian accounts shared was distasteful,” he said about political ads posted on the service during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “But it would’ve been considered permissible political discourse if it had been shared by real American citizens.”

Because of the frustration of both Republicans and Democrats, Zuckerberg said that Facebook considered eliminating all political ads. Such ads are a relatively small part of Facebook’s business and therefore getting rid of them would barely impact its overall business.

But Zuckerberg said that would only help political incumbents—challengers would be less visible—and let everyone else but the actual candidate weigh in on important issues.

“We’re doing a very good job of making both sides angry at us,” he said, eliciting his first laugh from the crowd.

Zuckerberg also argued that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth—a defense he’s used for years. 

“While I certainly worry about an erosion of truth, I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100% true,” he said.

And he doesn’t think solving the problem should fall solely on Facebook. Rather, governments worldwide should play a larger role in regulating speech and privacy.

Zuckerberg added that breaking up tech companies like Facebook, as some politicians want, isn’t a solution. It would leave tech companies with fewer resources to combat all the problems they face, he said.

“Whether you like Facebook or not, you need to recognize what is at stake and come together and stand for voice and freedom of expression,” Zuckerberg said. 

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