Blocking of Turkish Pages Shows Facebook ‘Disingenuous’ on Free Speech, Report Says

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Only two weeks after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a strongly worded #JeSuisCharlie statement on the importance of free speech, Facebook has agreed to censor images of the prophet Muhammad in Turkey, including the very type of image that precipitated the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Washington Post said.

It’s an illustration, perhaps, of how extremely complicated and nuanced issues of online speech really are. It’s also conclusive proof of what many tech critics said of Zuckerberg’s free-speech declaration at the time: Sweeping promises are all well and good, but Facebook’s record doesn’t entirely back it up, the Post said.

In December, Facebook agreed to censor the page of Russia’s leading Putin critic, Alexei Navalny, at the request of Russian Internet regulators. Critics previously accused the site of taking down pages tied to dissidents in Syria and China; the International Campaign for Tibet is currently circulating a petition against alleged Facebook censorship, which has been signed more than 20, 000 times, the report said.

Now, per the BBC, Facebook has blocked an unspecified number of pages that “offended the Prophet Muhammad” after receiving a court order from a local court in Ankara. A person familiar with the matter but not authorized to speak publicly confirmed to the Post that Facebook had acted to “block content so that it’s no longer visible in Turkey following a valid legal request.” In the past, social media companies that failed to comply with such requests — including Twitter and YouTube — have been entirely blocked in the country, the Post said.

Turkey is, in fact, one of Facebook’s more vexing territories, at least where censorship is concerned. The country represents a huge potential audience for U.S. tech companies, with its growing population of young digital natives and its rapidly transforming economy, the report said.

But according to Facebook’s latest transparency report, which covered the first six months of 2014, Turkey asked Facebook to censor 1, 893 pieces of content in that timespan — the second-most of any country, according to the Post.

Facebook is a global company, of course, and must obey the laws of each country it operates in; the site can’t exactly pick and choose which regulations it finds agreeable, and it’s the site’s long-standing policy to comply with subpoenas, warrants and other government requests, provided they meet what Facebook calls a “very high legal bar”, the report said.

Still, there’s something a bit grating about the decision, coming so very soon after Zuckerberg’s rosy-eyed epistle on free speech. It would be unfair to fault Facebook for complying with a legitimate foreign government request, regardless of how repressive it may seem. But for Facebook to do that while simultaneously styling itself as the patron saint of political speech? It seems a little disingenuous, to say the least, according to the Post.

“I’m committed to building a service where you can speak freely without fear of violence, ” Zuckerberg said in his Hebdo statement. He forgot that little asterisk: “… as long as what you say follows the censorship laws in your country, and as long as said country doesn’t ask us to take it down”, the report said.

 

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