In Washington, Zuckerberg pledged that Facebook will no longer pursue expansion inside China and will stand up for the values of free societies. He also pleaded with Congress to help U.S. tech firms compete with China, where the government and private industry are working together to supplant U.S. economic and technological leadership — and undermine our political freedom.
“China is building its own Internet focused on very different values, and is now exporting their vision of the Internet to other countries,” he said Oct. 17
at Georgetown University. “Until recently, the Internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values. There’s no guarantee these values will win out.”
Zuckerberg’s China turn stands in stark contrast to companies such as Apple, whose chief executive Tim Cook this week was named advisory board chairman of a major Chinese university, or Disney, whose chief executive Bob Iger refused to comment on China this week out of fear it would “harm” his company. Of course, it’s easier for Facebook to criticize Beijing than firms with more exposure, and Zuckerberg came to this awakening after Beijing rejected his courtship. But regardless of his motivations, the Facebook chief executive is right.
That doesn’t absolve him or Facebook of any of the practices that have mired them in controversy. In a Wednesday hearing, lawmakers heavily criticized Zuckerberg for the way Facebook has handled foreign interference, news curation and workplace diversity. But most lawmakers missed Zuckerberg’s dire warning about China’s plans to build and control the next generation of technology infrastructure.
He pointed out that while Congress is rightly concerned Facebook’s new electronic payment system, Libra, will undercut U.S. financial integrity and transparency, China and Alibaba are racing to unveil a competitor system that won’t even try to adhere to those goals.
The good news is that, as far as China is concerned, Facebook and Congress are now on the same page. On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sent a letter to acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire about the national security risks posed by Chinese tech firms operating in the United States, including TikTok, a major Facebook competitor.
The Guardian reported last month how TikTok censors videos that touch upon subjects sensitive to Beijing, even when used here. Because TikTok is owned by the Chinese firm Bytedance, all its data is subject to exploitation by the Chinese government, the senators warned.
It would be a hugely welcome development if our national security and tech sectors could realize that rising to the Chinese challenge is more important for their survival than fighting each other. The Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese corporate sector are laser-focused on their objective — to dominate the next generation of technology and dictate the standards for its use.
“China is offering surveillance, censorship and opacity. The free societies should offer public trust, transparency and accountability as an alternative,” said Christopher Walker, vice president at the National Endowment for Democracy. “U.S. technology leaders should see these values as an opportunity in a competition with China.”
Facebook’s rhetorical acknowledgment of the China threat is just a first step. If Zuckerberg is serious, he must lead his company and his industry to put its money where his mouth is. Facebook could spearhead an initiative to get U.S. tech companies to agree to basic standards and values when doing business around the world, to strengthen their combined ability to resist Chinese coercion.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government must cooperate more with the U.S. tech industry to build awareness of Chinese practices and resilience to China’s economic aggression. Both sides will have to put some politics aside and be willing to address some thorny issues. But if the competition is really between China’s authoritarian tech model and the free and open society approach, improving data privacy, transparency and accountability will actually make our model stronger because it will enable the one thing China can never offer: public trust.
In the absence of that sort of initiative, the authoritarians will continue to build momentum. China’s advantage is that its system allows for a ruthless government-corporate coordinated effort to beat us. If it’s a race to the bottom, China will definitely win.
The U.S. government and U.S. companies have an imperative to work together in a race to the top. In that race, our values are our advantage. Basing our strategy around them is the only way to preserve our economic primacy, national security and