Sometimes the most critical moments in history happen not when a person does something, but when they refuse to do something.
Mark Zuckerberg telling us he does not want to be the world’s speech police is not precisely George Washington refusing to become a king, but it’s close.
Zuckerberg is an immensely powerful person standing at a pivot point for our society. In a speech delivered at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg pushed back against those urging him to start picking and choosing the sort of political discourse he’s going to allow.
Some people believe giving more people a voice is driving division rather than bringing us together. More people across the spectrum believe that achieving the political outcomes they think matter is more important than every person having a voice. I think that’s dangerous.
I believe we have two responsibilities: to remove content when it could cause real danger as effectively as we can, and to fight to uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible — and not allow the definition of what is considered dangerous to expand beyond what is absolutely necessary. That’s what I’m committed to . . .
Political advertising is more transparent on Facebook than anywhere else — we keep all political and issue ads in an archive so everyone can scrutinize them, and no TV or print does that. We don’t fact-check political ads. We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. And if content is newsworthy, we also won’t take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with many of our standards. I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.
This is a crucial line-in-the-sand for Zuckerberg to draw.
Every debate about limits on free speech – whether we’re talking about hate speech or misleading speech, etc. – comes down to one problematic question: Who gets to decide what the limits are?
Zuckerberg is endorsing a speech standard created by former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who wrote in Whitney v. California, “If there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods, and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
You’ve probably heard this sentiment expressed along the lines of “the remedy for speech you don’t like is more speech.”
If someone like, say, Elizabeth Warren uses Facebook to claim that her health care plan won’t result in tax hikes, it’s not Facebook’s job to dispute that. It’s the job of everyone who disagrees with Elizabeth Warren, including her rivals for political office.
Is that a perfect system? Of course not. Will a lot of people end up getting duped by misleading statements from politicians and political groups and other people with interest in putting one over on the public? Yup.
But you know what’s even less perfect? Decisions about which speech to allow, or disallow, being made in corporate board rooms. Or by some government committee.
Each and every one of us should be able to decide for ourselves which sort of speech we agree with, and which kind of speech is wrong. There are no perfect angels – indeed, Mr. Zuckerberg is not one – we can trust to make those decisions for us.
This is a principled stand, and it’s coming at a critical moment in our nation’s history. Like it or not, companies like Facebook and Twitter stand astride the bulk of the information the public gets. Zuckerberg’s forbearance, when he could probably get less flak by giving in to demands to play speech police, is essential.
By the way, it’s worth noting that for all Facebook’s faults, at least they didn’t decide to play patty-cake with China’s authoritarian, anti-speech government like some other American institutions have (I’m looking at you, NBA):
It’s one of the reasons we don’t operate Facebook, Instagram or our other services in 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. 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. And now we have more freedom to speak out and stand up for the values we believe in and fight for free expression around the world.
There are a lot of reasons to dislike Zuckerberg and his company, but on this front, he’s getting it right.