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Posted at 06:12 PM ET, 04/20/2011

Facebook’s ‘too much, maybe, free speech’ problem


(Tony Avelar - BLOOMBERG)
Facebook is allowing “too much, maybe, free speech, in countries that haven’t experienced it before.” Adam Conner, a lobbyist for Facebook, told the Wall Street Journal.

Sure, he’s 25, and nothing says, “I am likely to make a statement that does not represent me or my company well,” like “I am 25-years old — and male.” But then again, Mark Zuckerberg is a 26-year-old male, so maybe this grain of salt doesn’t belong.

After all, Conner is a lobbyist for Facebook in Washington, and whether or not his views represent the company’s, they seem emblematic of the young company’s cavalier attitude toward things like allowing us to share our user information with every application, ever, reformatting our privacy settings and contumaciously persisting in not giving us a Dislike button. “We’ll leave!” we say. “Yeah, right!” they respond. “I bet you move to Canada after every election as well.” They know we’re a captive audience. But how captive?

“Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others,” Conner told the Journal.

Isn’t Facebook a house built on the premise that there is no such thing as too much, maybe, free speech? If not, why is my newsfeed full of people wishing Hitler a happy birthday?

And what does he mean, “countries that haven’t experienced it before”? Facebook has given all of us speech we weren’t accustomed to before. Besides the role it’s played in rebellions, consider: We didn’t use our free speech before to call our friends at 3AM with the information that “I just realized ‘Baby Phat’ is actually a pun!” No country was used to this.

There’s free speech, and then there’s the kind of speech that’s free because nobody would pay you for it. Remember oversharing? Remember when it was actively discouraged? Not since Facebook. Now other social networks follow this lead. Sure, Twitter looks down on Facebook now, but if we hadn’t displayed an appetite for banal revelations from people we did know, no one would have thought we’d want them from total strangers, but a bit shorter, and with generally better spelling.

Conner’s remarks remind me that Facebook has begun a long and potentially sordid flirtation with China and its regime of online censorship. Yes, vast markets in closed-Internet regimes are tempting. But they are not devoid of social networks willing to censor content. China already boasts sites like Kaixin and Renren. Yes, the pie’s large — but is it worth it for such a small potential slice? Facebook won’t gain any friends by simply joining the group for Censors of Online Content.

Besides, Facebook is a site based on the principle that nobody should be required to shut up, ever. Song lyrics. Bizarre conspiracy theories. Links to “informative” articles. Thoughts that seemed profound on April 20th. Let it all hang out on your newsfeed! Any Web site that won’t let me detag that one photo can’t start censoring now.

Besides, if Facebook wants to crack down on unwanted expression, it should probably start by getting rid of poking.

By  |  06:12 PM ET, 04/20/2011

Tags:  Facebook, oy

 
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