On October 17, 2019, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech at Georgetown University. To say that it was expected is not exaggerated: it’s been months, even years, that the world has been doubting, one scandal after another, the Amercian firm’s ability to respect the most fundamental rights of its users, especially their freedom expression.
Beyond the faux pas, widely commented in the press, especially here, or here, Mark Zuckerberg’s speech opens some interesting perspectives for the firm as an actor of the protection of freedom of expression.
The global internet is fracturing
Mark Zuckerberg’s analysis is accurate: The global Internet is at a crossroads, between its free version, and its more repressive version, inspired in particular by the Chinese model. In addition, local legislations, including in France, give platforms an interpretation of the content that can or can’t be visible. At Internet Without Borders, we have been alerting against this development for a long time, particularly through our work on Internet shutdowns that are increasing in Southern countries.
In these countries, very often, access to the Internet is confused with access to the the American firm’s services (WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook). These platforms are now the scene of disinformation and hate campaigns, which justify censorship of these services, and therefore the Internet, according to some repressive regimes. In Chad, for example, social networks were blocked for nearly 16 months.
Despite the accuracy of the analysis, solutions advocated by Mark Zuckerberg and his company, to curb both disinformation and the dissemination of dangerous speech, have not met with the expected success. The method used, especially moderation assisted by artificial intelligence, as well as the US-centric vision are no longer sufficient. Facebook is certainly a US company, but the impact of its services is global. Of the 2 billion Facebook users, 240 million are Americans, the remaining three-quarters are located in the rest of the world.
At Internet Without Borders, we believe that Mark Zuckerberg missed an opportunity to shift the debate on the protection of freedom of expression from a US framework, to its real framework, i.e. global. For instance, we searched for references to international texts that protect this freedom of expression, and can protect the platform from incitement to censorship, imposed by a growing number of states, in the name of combating hate, violence, or terrorism.
In an unstable and less democratic world, all actors in society must play their part to protect our acquired rights and freedoms: by recalling the forthcoming launch of an independent Oversight Board, which will be responsible for reviewing moderation decisions of his platforms, Mark Zuckerberg suggests that this is the manifestation of his company’s commitment to play its part in the necessary and urgent protection of freedom of expression on the Internet.
Internet Sans Frontières participated in the consultations that helped form this oversight board, and we welcome its creation, as we already said here.
However, in order to demonstrate a sincere and total commitment to freedom of expression, the company can not do without profound changes to how it handles the priacy of its users, a necessary corollary of freedom of expression.
The great unknown of privacy
This right was not mentioned in Mark Zuckerberg’s speech. Yet it is at the heart of the issues of disinformation, hatred and freedom of expression: it is precisely because the network failed to technically protect the data of its users in the world, that companies like Cambridge Analytica could fraudulently exploit the personal and political information of the latter to manipulate their opinions, with the consequences that we now known.
Not addressing this, leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of those who want to believe in Facebook’s sincere commitment to freedom of expression.Tags: Facebook, freedom of expression, Mark Zuckerberg