Zuckerberg defends approach to free speech, draws line on China

October 18, 2019 09:37
Mark Zuckerberg speaks at a forum hosted by Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service and the McCourt School of Public Policy in Washington on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday defended the social media company’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, Reuters reports.

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

“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,” the tech entrepreneur was quoted as saying.

Zuckerberg framed Facebook's decisions around that concept, including its recent retreat from years of aggressive courtship of China.

Zuckerberg effectively closed the door to China in March, when he announced his plan to pivot Facebook toward more private forms of communication and pledged not to build data centers in countries with “a track record of violating human rights like privacy or freedom of expression.”

He repeated his concern about data centers on Thursday, this time specifically naming China.

“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,” Zuckerberg 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.”

He received a question from the audience about what conditions or assurances he would need to enter the Chinese market, but did not address them in his response.

Zuckerberg also defended the company’s political advertising policies on similar grounds, 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 immediately panned by critics, among them candidates seeking the US Democratic presidential nomination who have asserted the company should do more to address disinformation and abuse ahead of the November 2020 election.

Facebook has been under scrutiny after finding Russian propaganda on its platform which many believe affected the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election, won by Donald Trump.

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