Why Facebook Will Never Be a Haven for Free Speech

Josh WolfordSocial Media

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Mark Zuckerberg doesn't want to let extremists stifle your freedom to express yourself.

That's the takeaway from an eloquent post the Facebook CEO made on Friday regarding the terrorist attacks on French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Here's the post in its entirety:

A few years ago, an extremist in Pakistan fought to have me sentenced to death because Facebook refused to ban content about Mohammed that offended him.

We stood up for this because different voices -- even if they're sometimes offensive -- can make the world a better and more interesting place.

Facebook has always been a place where people across the world share their views and ideas. We follow the laws in each country, but we never let one country or group of people dictate what people can share across the world.

Yet as I reflect on yesterday's attack and my own experience with extremism, this is what we all need to reject -- a group of extremists trying to silence the voices and opinions of everyone else around the world.

I won't let that happen on Facebook. I'm committed to building a service where you can speak freely without fear of violence.

My thoughts are with the victims, their families, the people of France and the people all over the world who choose to share their views and ideas, even when that takes courage. ‪#‎JeSuisCharlie‬

Can you find anything wrong with that statement? I can't. The "all speech must be tolerated, not just the speech we agree with" argument is an effective one because it's the right one. Without this, the entire foundation crumbles. If you think offensive speech should be banned, then you're not an advocate of free speech. It's that simple.

So – good statement. Well executed. But here's the rub: Facebook is not a free speech zone. It does not have to be and you should not expect it to be. Still, that's why you're likely taking issue with Zuckerberg's statement, despite its eloquence. Maybe you're not – but plenty are.

Facebook does not have to be a free speech haven. It's not the US government, and it's not bound by the constitution. Facebook is a business that's trying to (and currently succeeding in) making money. Facebook can ban whatever content it wants. It might not be good for business, or it might be great for business – depending on the specific content. Facebook walks a fine line. The site has to moderate enough content to keep it advertiser-friendly (no porn, illegal activity) while avoiding stifling the appearance of free expression (breastfeeding photos, offensive political statements).

But it often fails at that.

Do a quick Google search for "Facebook bans" or "Facebook removes" and you'll see a lot of results. Facebook bans user for gun rights post, or Facebook bans post about whatever. Facebook removes a page that offends a certain group. Facebook won't let you show your nipple.

Should any of these things be banned on a site that is "committed" to letting your speak freely? No. Were they? Yes. Is this Zuckerberg's fault? Not really. Many times these errors fix themselves – Facebook apologizes for banning content it shouldn't have banned, and people move on. Sometimes the content stays banned. It's an imperfect system.

As it stands, Facebook's content moderation is messy and unreliable. Think about the sheer volume of stuff that goes up on Facebook every single day. Now think abut trying to moderate it all. Not only that, but the process of moderation is mostly outsourced and relies on user reporting. The company is also in a constant state of conflict regarding how "free" it lets its users be. And on top of all that, the terms of service (Facebook's constitution) is painfully vague when defining what kind of content is ok and what kind of content will make trouble.

"You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence." That's pretty much the only sentence in Facebook's terms of service that addresses content.

Ultimately, there's always going to be some whiff of hypocrisy whenever Mark Zuckerberg soapboxes on the promise of free expression. The entire concept of free speech is complicated, and you can't expect Facebook to provide clarity where so many others have struggled. I'm sure that Mark Zuckerberg truly believes every single thing he said today – but his belief in these ideals is not enough to change the fact that Facebook just isn't built to be a free speech haven.

Josh Wolford
Josh Wolford is a writer for WebProNews. He likes beer, Japanese food, and movies that make him feel weird afterward. Mostly beer. Follow him on Twitter: @joshgwolf Instagram: @joshgwolf Google+: Joshua Wolford StumbleUpon: joshgwolf