Mark Zuckerberg is rarely compelling when he speaks, but when his Facebook is facing increased scrutiny, the CEO doubled down on freedom of speech. Especially after leaked audio from an internal meeting revealed Zuckerberg calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren an “existential threat.” Under his vision, more speech is better whether it is factual or not.
One part of his speech that was very revealing and on point was:
“Increasingly, we’re seeing people try to define more speech as dangerous because it may lead to political outcomes they see as unacceptable. Some hold the view that since the stakes are so high, they can no longer trust their fellow citizens with the power to communicate and decide what to believe for themselves.
I personally believe this is more dangerous for democracy over the long term than almost any speech. Democracy depends on the idea that we hold each others’ right to express ourselves and be heard above our own desire to always get the outcomes we want. You can’t impose tolerance top-down. It has to come from people opening up, sharing experiences, and developing a shared story for society that we all feel we’re a part of. That’s how we make progress together.”
It was very telling of the time we live in as in the past, Conservatives were the fighters against the liberal speech-code intolerances, but now many conservative intellectuals have become more willing to jettison First Amendment doctrines because they view the other side’s speech is too toxic to tolerate. Each side uses their own excuses to rationalize this, but top-down censorship only fractures our society which has become very fractious. One side uses “tolerance” while the other side loves using “common good.” You can figure out which side uses what excuse.
On Thursday, the Facebook co-founder defended the social media platform’s refusal to take down content it considers newsworthy “even if it goes against our standards.” But while he promoted free expression, limitations were placed on coverage of his remarks at Georgetown University.
Reporters were not allowed to ask questions — only students were given that chance, filtered by a moderator. Facebook and Georgetown barred news organizations from filming. Instead, organizers provided a livestream on Georgetown’s social media site and made available video shot by Facebook.
“It’s quite ironic,” said Sally Hubbard, director of enforcement strategy at the Open Markets Institute and a former state prosecutor. More generally, she said of Facebook, “The key to free expression is to not have one company control the flow of speech to more than 2 billion people, using algorithms that amplify disinformation in order to maximize profits.”
Facebook, Google, Twitter and other companies are trying to oversee internet content while also avoiding infringing on First Amendment rights. The pendulum has swung recently toward restricting hateful speech that could spawn violence. The shift follows mass shootings in which the suspects have posted racist screeds online or otherwise expressed hateful views or streamed images of attacks.
Facebook also has come under criticism for not doing enough to filter out phony political ads.
“Right now, we’re doing a very good job at getting everyone mad at us,” Zuckerberg told the packed hall at Georgetown.
He said serious threats to expression are coming from places such as China, where social media platforms used by protesters are censored, and from court decisions restricting the location of internet users’ data in certain countries.
“I’m here today because I believe that we must continue to stand for free expression,” he said. People of varied political beliefs are trying to define expansive speech as dangerous because it could bring results they don’t accept, Zuckerberg said. “I personally believe this is more dangerous to democracy in the long term than almost any speech.”
Taking note of mounting criticism of the market dominance of Facebook and other tech giants, Zuckerberg acknowledged the companies’ centralized power but said it’s also “decentralized by putting it directly into people’s hands. … Giving people a voice and broader inclusion go hand in hand.”
John Stanton, a former fellow at Georgetown who heads a group called the “Save Journalism Project,” called the CEO’s appearance “a joke.”
Zuckerberg “is the antithesis of free expression,” Stanton said in a statement. “He’s thrown free speech, public education and democracy to the wayside in his thirst for power and profit.”
The social media giant, with nearly 2.5 billion users around the globe, is under heavy scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators following a series of data privacy scandals, including lapses in opening the personal data of millions of users to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Facebook and other social media platforms have drawn accusations from President Donald Trump and his allies that their platforms are steeped in anti-conservative bias.
Zuckerberg recently fell into a tiff with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, who ran a fake political ad on Facebook taking aim at the CEO. Warren has proposed breaking up big tech companies. With the phony ad, she was protesting Facebook’s policy of not fact-checking politicians’ speech or ads in the same way it enlists outside parties to fact-check news stories and other posts.
“We think people should be able to see for themselves,” Zuckerberg responded Thursday on the fact-checking issue. “If content is newsworthy, we don’t take it down even if it goes against our standards.”
The social media network also rebuffed requests that it remove a misleading video ad from Trump’s re-election campaign targeting Democrat Joe Biden.
A spokesman for Biden said Zuckerberg’s speech was an effort “to cloak Facebook’s policy in a feigned concern for free expression.”
“Facebook has chosen to sell Americans’ personal data to politicians looking to target them with disproven lies and conspiracy theories, crowding out the voices of working Americans,” campaign spokesman Bill Russo said in a statement.
Several of the students’ questions to Zuckerberg at Georgetown pointed up the conflict. One asked, if Facebook supports free speech, “why is conservative content disproportionately censored?” But another asserted that the policy of not fact-checking political ads is pro-conservative.
“I think it would be hard to be biased against both sides,” Zuckerberg replied, smiling.
Asked about the handling of questions, Facebook spokeswoman Ruchika Budhjara said, “They were submitted by students as they walked into the room. And they’re being picked at random by Georgetown.”
China Snooping Tech Continues Trying For World Domination
When hundreds of video cameras with the power to identify and track individuals started appearing in the streets of Belgrade as part of a major surveillance project, some protesters began having second thoughts about joining anti-government demonstrations in the Serbian capital.
Local authorities assert the system, created by Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, helps reduce crime in the city of 2 million. Critics contend it erodes personal freedoms, makes political opponents vulnerable to retribution and even exposes the country’s citizens to snooping by the Chinese government.
The cameras, equipped with facial recognition technology, are being rolled out across hundreds of cities around the world, particularly in poorer countries with weak track records on human rights where Beijing has increased its influence through big business deals. With the United States claiming that Chinese state authorities can get backdoor access to Huawei data, the aggressive rollout is raising concerns about the privacy of millions of people in countries with little power to stand up to China.
“The system can be used to trail political opponents, monitor regime critics at any moment, which is completely against the law,” said Serbia’s former commissioner for personal data protection, Rodoljub Sabic.
Groups opposed to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic say police are leaking video of protests to pro-government media, which publish the images, along with the identities of participants. Vucic himself has boasted the police have the capability to count “each head” at anti-government gatherings. During a recent rally, protesters climbed up a pole and covered a camera lens with duct tape scrawled with the word “censored.”
Serbian police deny any such abuse of the Huawei system, which will eventually encompass 1,000 cameras in 800 locations throughout Belgrade. Huawei said in a statement that it “complies with all applicable laws and regulations” in Serbia and anywhere else it does business.
While facial recognition technology is being adopted in many countries, spurring debate over the balance between privacy and safety, the Huawei system has gained extra attention due to accusations that Chinese laws requiring companies to assist in national intelligence work give authorities access to its data.
As a result, some countries are reconsidering using Huawei technology, particularly the superfast 5G networks that are being rolled out later this year.
Still, Huawei, which denies accusations of any Chinese government control, has had no trouble finding customers eager to install its so-called Safe Cities technology, particularly among countries that China has brought closer into its diplomatic and economic orbit.
Besides Serbia, that list includes Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Angola, Laos, Kazakhstan, Kenya, and Uganda, as well as a few liberal democracies like Germany, France and Italy. The system is used in some 230 cities, exposing tens of millions of people to its screening.
In a promotional brochure, Huawei says its video surveillance technology can scan over long distances to detect “abnormal behavior” such as loitering, track the movement of cars and people, calculate crowd size and send alerts to a command center if it detects something suspicious. Local authorities can then act upon the information they receive.
In one case advertised on its website, the company says a suspect in a hit-and-run accident in Belgrade was later discovered in China with the help of face recognition data shared by the Serbian police with their Chinese counterparts.
In view of the cybersecurity accusations leveled by the U.S. and international rights groups against Huawei, the relationship between China and countries that use the company’s technology is coming under renewed scrutiny.
China’s influence in Serbia, a European Union candidate that Beijing views as a gateway to the continent, has significantly expanded in recent years through Beijing’s global Belt and Road investment programs. The populist Serbian regime has been keen to develop closer ties and the country’s fragile democracy allows China’s economic interests to grow relatively unchecked, without raising too many questions about human rights, environmental standards or transparency.
China’s state investment bank has granted billions of dollars in easy-term loans to build coal-powered plants, roads, railroads and bridges. Chinese police officers even help patrol the streets of Belgrade, a security presence officially billed as assisting the growing number of Chinese tourists who visit the city.
It’s a similar story in Uganda, where China has invested heavily in infrastructure like highways and a hydropower dam on the Nile.
When longtime President Yoweri Museveni launched a $126-million project to install Huawei facial recognition systems a year ago, he said the cameras were “eyes, ears and a nose” to fight rampant street crime in the sprawling capital, Kampala. Opposition activists say the real goal is to deter street protesters against an increasingly unpopular government.
“The cameras are politically motivated,” said Joel Ssenyonyi, a spokesman for the musician and activist known as Bobi Wine who has emerged as a powerful challenger to Museveni. “They are not doing this for security. The focus for them is hunting down political opponents.”
In neighboring Kenya, the government has also renewed its focus on public safety after a spate of extremist attacks. It has been pushing to register people digitally, including by recording DNA, iris and facial data. To do so, it turned to China, which helped finance the installation of surveillance cameras in Kenya as far back as 2012.
The Kenyan government wants to pool into one database all the information from public and private CCTV cameras, including those with facial recognition technology, a move that activists warn would vastly expand its surveillance powers in a country that does not have comprehensive data protection laws.
A growing number of countries are following China’s lead in deploying artificial intelligence to track citizens, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The group says at least 75 countries are actively using AI tools such as facial recognition for surveillance — and Huawei has sold its systems in 50 of those countries, giving it a far wider reach than competitors such as Japan-based NEC and U.S.-based IBM.
“It’s very unclear what safeguards are being put in place,” said Steven Feldstein, a Carnegie Endowment fellow who authored a report on the issue. “Where are images being stored? How long are they being stored for? What kind of accountability procedures will there be? What type of operations will be linked to these surveillance cameras?”
Huawei said in an emailed statement that it “complies with all applicable laws and regulations in our countries of business. This is the most fundamental principle of our business operations. We are dedicated to bringing people better connectivity, eliminating digital gaps, and promoting the sustainable development of our societies and economies.”
In Belgrade’s bustling downtown Republic Square, high-tech video cameras are pointed in all directions from an office building as pedestrians hurry about their everyday business.
With public authorities disclosing little about how the cameras work, a rights group has set up a tent to ask pedestrians whether they know they are being watched.
“We don’t want to be in some kind of Big Brother society,” said rights activist Ivana Markulic. “We are asking: Where are the cameras, where are they hidden, how much did we pay for them and what’s going to happen with information collected after this surveillance?”