LAST WEEK, Adam Conner, a lobbyist for Facebook in Washington, had some chilling words for the Wall Street Journal about the company’s plans. “Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others,” Mr. Conner said. “We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we’re allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven’t experienced it before.”
Such a remark — even when it comes from a 25- year-old lobbyist — is deeply disturbing and seems to reflect an alarmingly cavalier attitude toward Internet censorship.
Since Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to China in December, rumors about an expansion of Facebook into China — perhaps in partnership with a local company — have been rampant. Mr. Zuckerberg has said that he can’t imagine accomplishing his mission of connecting the world without incorporating China. But on whose terms?
Facebook is currently banned in China. On his arrival there in December, some joked that Mr. Zuckerberg would be welcomed as the founder of “404 not found,” the result of searches for the site for those who live behind China’s Great Firewall. If Facebook expands there, China can be expected to require Facebook to share data with authorities and submit to China’s elaborate apparatus of online content censorship. Is it worth the cost?
Vast markets in closed-Internet regimes are certainly tempting — China boasts more than 400 million Internet users. But social networking sites willing to conform to Chinese demands for Internet censorship already exist — Kaixin and Renren, for instance, claim nearly 200 million users. The pie may be large — but is it worth compromising so much for a relatively small slice?
Facebook stands at a crossroads. It has been lauded as instrumental in countries such as Egypt, allowing people to coordinate protests and turn the wheels of political change. It can continue to connect people and enable them to express themselves freely, or it can — as Mr. Conner suggested it might — become another bearer of the double standard of Western companies in China such as Yahoo and Microsoft.
Facebook played a key role in President Obama’s campaign and his outreach to youth. He remains an undeniable social force in the United States. The president and Mr. Zuckerberg seemed to get along well at a town hall meeting Wednesday at Facebook’s headquarters in California. But this is an opportunity for the administration to make it clear it cares about Facebook’s position toward China — and will be disappointed if Mr. Conner’s words are true.
Time and again, U.S. companies have been willing to become the tools of oppressive regimes, offering their technology to censor the Internet and stifle dissent. But filling one’s pocketbook by enabling autocrats to control content online sets back the cause of freedom everywhere.
It’s true that you don’t get to 500 million friends without making enemies. But submitting to censorship demands is not the way to make friends.