Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg draped herself in the star-spangled banner of American principles before today’s Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on social media. Sandberg proclaimed that democratic values of free expression were integral to the company’s conscience. “We would only operate in a country where we could do so in keeping with our values,” she went on. Either this was a lie told under oath, or Facebook has some pretty lousy values.
“We would only operate in a country where we could do so in keeping with our values.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., questioned Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about the fact that they are both ostensibly American companies, but also firms with users around the world — including in countries with legal systems and values that differ drastically from the United States. Rubio cited various governments that crack down on, say, pro-democracy activism and that criminalize such speech. How can a company like Facebook claim that it’s committed to free expression as a global value while maintaining its adherence to rule of law on a local level? When it comes to democratic values, Rubio asked, “Do you support them only in the United States or are these principles that you feel obligated to support around the world?”
Sandberg, as always, didn’t miss a beat: “We support these principles around the world.” Shortly thereafter she made the claim that Facebook simply would not do business in a country where these values couldn’t be maintained.
Based on the information Facebook itself makes available, this is false. In its latest publicly available “transparency report,” Facebook says it helps block free expression as a matter of policy — so long as it’s technically legal in a given market. For instance, in the United Arab Emirates, a country that Human Rights Watch says “arbitrarily detains and in some cases forcibly disappears individuals who criticize the authorities,” Facebook does its part to help.
According to its most recent update on its compliance with UAE takedown requests — when a government or company requests that the social media giant remove content from its site — Facebook “restricted access to items in the UAE, all reported by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, a federal UAE government entity responsible for [information technology] sector in the UAE. The content was reported for hate speech and was attacking members of the royal family, which is against local laws.” It’s hard to imagine even Facebook’s legendary public relations team could construe censoring criticism of “the royal family” as anything resembling a democratic value. A similar entry from the report, on Pakistan, notes that Facebook “restricted access to items that were alleged to violate local laws prohibiting blasphemy and condemnation of the country’s independence.” (Facebook declined to comment on the record for this story.)
Twitter’s Dorsey, to his credit, admitted that his company is essentially trapped between being a business and not wanting to cave to unjust — albeit locally legal — censorship requests. “We would like to fight for every single person being able to speak freely and see everything, but we have to realize that it’s going to take some bridges to get there,” Dorsey told Rubio when asked about takedown requests from the Turkish government.
According to Adrian Shahbaz, who researches internet liberties for Freedom House, Dorsey’s reply was appreciably “more grounded in reality” than Sandberg’s, who seemed to be claiming that her company didn’t need to compromise. Shahbaz pointed out that there will be a natural, inherent tension for any global company “tasked with regulating the public space for every single country in the world.”
Rather than pointing to local laws against, say, blasphemy, Shahbaz suggested companies like Facebook “should be defending democratic values and abiding by its own terms of service” instead of local frameworks that might stifle political speech. One tack would be for Facebook to hold up its corporate terms of service as something “more like a constitution, [saying] these are the values we believe in around the world,” regardless of jurisdiction.
“Facebook should explain what it means by democratic values if it complies with laws that don’t comply with those values.”
Such a stance would also require the spine to say no to a government whose citizens are potentially lucrative data fodder. Cynthia Wong, a senior internet researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that although it’s heartening that the social media firm has made public human rights commitments, such as joining the Global Network Initiative, “Facebook should explain what it means by democratic values if it complies with laws that don’t comply with those values.” Wong added that with Facebook’s controversial “real names” policy, which forbids the use of pseudonyms on the network, the social media company “creates a lot of danger” for democratic activists “who don’t want to use their real name because they’re facing reprisal.”
For Rubio, these questions are essentially about whether companies like Facebook are truly “built on these core values” or whether they were merely “global companies like all these other companies that come around here, who see their number one obligation to make money.” So, which is it? The easiest way to explain the apparent contradiction between “we would only operate in a country when we could do so in keeping with our values” and helping a royal family stifle criticism is that, yes, Facebook is a global company that sees the generation of profit as its number one obligation. Facebook’s values aren’t so much the promotion of global democracy, but the promotion of global Facebook.