The Ethics of Facebook's Censorship Policies
We all know about Facebook's role in fomenting protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain. The social media site has been used to initiate protests, provide instantly updated information to protesters, and help organize future events. The Egyptian government detained for more than one week Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who was behind the key Facebook site that helped kick off the uprising. Facebook is being used to promote the uprisings in Syria through its Syrian Revolution 2011 page. Facebook is a beacon for freedom of speech. Right? Well, read on to learn more.
Facebook is currently banned in China. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is eager to gain access to China's 420 million Internet users and capitalize on a potential multi-billionaire dollar economy. However, the Chinese government is increasingly concerned about Western social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter given their effectiveness as organizing tools used by protesters in the wave of popular uprisings that have swept across parts of the Middle East. The government is concerned that the social networking system could be a portal for Chinese citizens to see a different way of life and thus disrupt "social harmony."
Earlier this month, a reported deal on a joint social-networking Web site between Facebook and Chinese search engine company Baidu fell through when the site was taken down by Chinese authorities. Facebook may have found a solution by not connecting to Facebook.com to circumvent strict national-level censorship and the company seems to be softening its position on free content postings. Facebook would have to operate as a stand-alone entity thereby giving the Chinese government direct access to censor the site, if necessary. In return, the government would allow Facebook to tap the huge Chinese population's online habits and make a Yuan-load of cash.
Questions remain about Facebook's willingness to censor the kind of activities that go on and surrender information on request to the Chinese authorities so they can control dissenting comment. However, if the company wants to gain access to the lucrative Chinese market it will have to abide by Chinese laws about self-regulating censorship and demands to snoop on user activity--the very same laws Google refused to comply with.
Facebook is clearly in the initial stages of modifying its position against censorship at least with respect to China. No doubt it wants to take advantage of the burgeoning private equity market in that country. Adam Conner, a Facebook lobbyist, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal on April 20 as saying: "Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others. We are occassionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we're allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven't experienced it before." That certainly was not the company's position during the uprisings on the Arabian Peninsula. I guess Facebook follows the ethical philosophy of ethical relativism. It is a belief that nothing is objectively right or wrong and that the definition of right or wrong depends on the prevailing view of a particular individual, culture, or historical period. Taken a step further, we could assume that Facebook would be willing to pay bribes to gain business in a foreign country if it were an accepted business practice in that country. The problem is ethical relativism is a convenient way to justify pursuing one's own self-interests even if they clash with societal norms such as free speech and that bribery is wrong.
Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, April 28, 2011