My esteem for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has just dropped significantly. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, he implores the government to regulate “harmful” speech on the internet (and even suggests ways of doing it). While Zuckerberg deserves admiration for having created and built Facebook (where I also have a page), inviting the government to censor free speech on online platforms is a low point in anti-business behavior by a corporate leader.

Why is government censorship of speech, online and elsewhere, bad? And why should you care?

Zuckerberg dresses his plea for government censorship as a concern for “protecting society from broader harms,” such as people encountering “harmful content” on Facebook or other online platforms. By “harmful” Zuckerberg seems to mean “hate speech,” speech that is offensive, disagreeable, or vile. He wants people to be “safe” online. He wants government to set a “baseline” for what kind of speech is prohibited, not just in the United States, but everywhere in the world.

Despite his posturing, Zuckerberg’s proposal will not protect us from “harm.” His plea is dangerous—because it advocates violating an important principle that our lives depend on: the right to liberty.

In our mixed economy system, governments already violate our right to liberty in a myriad of ways. They tax and regulate us, by dictating with whom we can trade, whom we can hire, how much we can charge customers, and how much we must pay employees. The list goes on.

The right to liberty is crucial, because our lives depend on freedom: the ability to choose what to do and what not to do. Under government coercion, we can survive physically, as sheep being herded, but we cannot live self-directed lives, pursuing our own happiness and choosing our own values.

The right to free speech is an important aspect of the right to liberty, particularly in the current system where governments are continually introducing new ways of controlling our lives. If governments can censor what we say on online platforms, the principle of free speech is thrown out. The censorship will expand—eventually prohibiting our ability to dissent and criticize the government. This will lead to escalating government control, and ultimately, to totalitarianism. Vladimir Putin recently signed a bill that criminalizes “disrespecting” the state.

Facebook and tech companies (or any companies) do not need government to tell them what to do, and what content to allow or not on their platforms. These businesses are already free to decide what content to prohibit. They can favor certain political views over others if they so choose. They can prohibit certain kind of language or criticism of their companies (such as this post).

Mark Zuckerberg wants government regulation of the internet content, not because it would somehow protect us against “harm,” but because it would protect Facebook against competition. He is arguing for government “baseline” standards for all internet businesses worldwide. As a New York Post column argues, this would limit competition. If every potential competitor to Facebook would have to abide by the same censorship rules, they could not attract users and advertisers who value free speech.

Limiting competition by government force is bad for users and advertisers who have fewer choices and fewer revenue opportunities. But such government interference in the market is bad also for business itself. It stifles innovation: better products, services and processes. With less innovation, there is less wealth created and therefore, less prosperity for everyone.

However, limiting competition by curtailing freedom of speech is most damaging to everyone. It prevents us from voicing dissent and allows government’s control over our lives to continue unabated. As long as we have free speech, we can defend our right to live our lives the way choose.

Without free speech, we will become sheep. That is the reason we must condemn Mark Zuckerberg’s immoral plea and defend our freedom of speech

 

Photo credit: Max Pixel

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

1 COMMENT

  1. Indeed, Zuckerberg is morally wrong about censorship.

    I think Zuckerberg is running scared. He’s had pushback from advertisers, and he intends to radically change FB’s user interaction such as eliminating the ‘News Feed’ in response to problems.

    Zuckerberg has not been competent enough to manage software changes for privacy or functionality, he’s had to publicly acknowledge attempts at fixing security problems failed. The accusations in the documentary ‘Social Network’ leave me not especially surprised at his latest scheme.

    Calling for regulation is a favourite trick of companies once they become successful, but I think Zuckerberg’s actions are more than that.

    But FB was not the first social networking service – there was one out of Ontario that preceded FB for example, and there are others, albeit they tend to have narrower focus. (As did FB in the beginning – it began as a campus service to rate women.)

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