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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Discusses Free Speech With Georgetown Students


It's rare that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes public speeches, but he did so today at Georgetown University. It was an attempt to tamp down some of the criticism Facebook has received about what it chooses to leave up on its site and what it takes down. Zuckerberg defended free speech. He said he didn't want Facebook to be the judge of what's allowed on its platform.

NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond listened in on Facebook, and she joins us now with the details. And, Shannon, to start, we know the headline. Can you give us a little more detail about what Mark Zuckerberg had to say?

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Yeah. He gave a strong defense of Facebook's role in promoting free speech as he sees it. And the way Zuckerberg talked about it, the risk that Facebook is confronting is too much restriction about what people can and can't post on Facebook or even just on the Internet in general.

And he says the political divisions that we're seeing are encouraging people to call for shutting down speech that they disagree with. But that's really dangerous in Facebook's view. Zuckerberg framed this as not about political fights in the U.S. but a question, really, with global implications given the rise of China. He noted in the speech that six of the top 10 Internet platforms today are Chinese. Those platforms are subject to censorship from Beijing. And in contrast, Zuckerberg says that Facebook represents American values of free speech. So here's what he said about that.


MARK ZUCKERBERG: So this question of which nation's values are going to determine what speech is allowed for decades to come really puts into perspective our debates about the content issues of the day.

BOND: And he's saying here that Facebook critics really need to take the worldview instead of just thinking about what's happening here at home.

CORNISH: Now, Zuckerberg, as I said earlier, he doesn't speak a lot at public events like this. So what do you think is behind this decision to do it now?

BOND: Well, he's coming back to Washington next week to testify before Congress, and he's probably going to face some tough questions from lawmakers on both sides. So I think, to some degree, this is about getting ahead of that.

And Facebook's becoming this central concern in the 2020 election. You know, we all remember what happened in 2016, and there are questions whether Facebook has done enough to correct the problems it faced. Just last week, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren attacked Facebook for allowing a Trump ad that made false claims.

And so the questions people are asking is, what is Facebook's responsibility? You know, this is a private company. It gets to set the rules for what can and can't appear on its platform, but it doesn't want to be the arbiter of truth. It doesn't want to be a censor. Zuckerberg addressed exactly this today, and he stressed that there are no easy answers. Here's what he said.


ZUCKERBERG: I believe that when it's not absolutely clear what to do, then we should err on the side of greater expression.

BOND: And so, you know, Zuckerberg says that Facebook actually considered banning political ads altogether - just, you know, saying we're not going to take any of these. And it's not a big part of their revenue stream. But he didn't. He said that his concerns were that that would tip the scales, just doing that itself. And he says that people should be able to hear politicians and make up their own minds. So this is really this doubling down on this position that Facebook and other tech companies are taking; they're not going to be the ref here.

CORNISH: Right. And Facebook isn't alone in dealing with this issue. So you've got these other social media platforms trying to figure out when they leave speech up, when they suspend accounts. How are other people dealing with it?

BOND: That's right. I mean, Twitter is also struggling with this. Like Facebook, it said that its rules that ban things like bullying and threatening language don't apply in all cases to political leaders like President Trump. You know, he uses Twitter all the time. And they're going to err on the side of allowing that. So I think despite all of this criticism they're facing, we're seeing big tech companies saying, when it comes to political speech, free expression wins out over those rules that affect the average user like you and me.

CORNISH: I also want to note that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

I want to thank NPR's Shannon Bond for your reporting.

BOND: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
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