Posted April 20, 2011 11:26 am by with 4 comments

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Today’s a big day for Facebook. President Obama will be doing some kind of town hall function at the Facebook headquarters as he seeks to reach into the pockets of the rich through more taxes. That in itself should be fun to watch since he is in the land of billionaires but what is getting more attention is a quote from a Wall Street Journal article from Facebook lobbyist Adam Conner as the social media giant looks to expand in areas where free speech is not the norm (China folks, it’s China).

Conner’s curious statement was

“Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others,” Adam Conner, a Facebook lobbyist, told the Journal. “We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we’re allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven’t experienced it before,” he said.

(UPDATE: No new news but I wondered if anyone else finds it more than a little ironic that Facebook’s lobbyist’s name is Con-ner. Get it?)

Hold on there big fella! Isn’t Facebook the defender of the free world having been the linchpin of the revolt in Egypt? Isn’t Facebook all about information for everyone all the time? Isn’t Facebook for the people, by the people etc etc?

Apparently not when so much money is on the line in a huge market like China. Where Google said it wouldn’t comply with China’s censorship policies and effectively left the market, Facebook is playing softball with free speech, at least according to their lobbyist in the nation’s capital.

The Journal spoke with some power brokers about what Facebook faces if it decides to play intermediary for what’s free speech and what isn’t in other parts of the world.

Facebook’s plans may not sit well with congressional leaders already incensed with the company for sidestepping congressional inquiries on its China plans. Last spring, Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee’s panel on human rights, rebuked Facebook for refusing to appear at a Capitol Hill hearing on “global Internet freedom.”

The company hasn’t joined the Global Network Initiative, a group that includes information-technology companies like Google and Microsoft and human-rights groups that have agreed to common principles of conduct in nations such as China, which restrict speech and expression.

What’s interesting is that while the press has played up Facebook’s role in the fight for freedom around the world the company itself has stayed relatively mum on the subject.

Neither Facebook nor its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, have said much publicly about Facebook’s role as a tool for pro-democracy activists in Tunisia or Egypt. In Tunisia, where Facebook took technical steps to counter government efforts to steal users’ Facebook passwords, the company said its efforts were driven by a safety and security breach—not politics.

So now with China looming on the horizon as a possible market to conquer (likely through a partnership in the country) it seems awful convenient that Facebook throws open its headquarters doors to the leader of the free world for some campaign work (oh, let’s be real, that’s what it is). By cuddling up to the Whitehouse does Facebook expect that Washington will turn a blind eye to activities it pursues in other parts of the world that are all about the benjamins and less about the freedoms?

If this quote is any indication it looks like a risky play to say the least.

“Blocking content in some countries—but not others—would deeply damage Facebook’s brand and raise troubling questions about its commitment to human rights and Internet freedom,” said Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate’s human- rights panel.

So while all of this political yow-yowing and posturing is business as usual for the Beltway set what about you? If it were discovered that Facebook was engaging in content censorship so they could do business in countries that represent big dollars but have horrible human rights records, would you be upset with Facebook?

If your answer is no let us know why and if it’s yes let us know why as well. Would you be upset enough to stop using the service? Would how Facebook maneuvers politically around the world impact how you use the service in the future?

I get that these are not marketing questions per se but the lines have blurred so much in the world because of the amount of information that is available to people today. As marketers what would happen if there was a huge investment of time, money and energy into Facebook marketing campaigns only to see end users walk away from the service in protest? Or is the idea that people would actually take a stand against Facebook and give up their online ‘friends’ as an act of protest just pollyannish because in reality no body cares enough to actually do anything about it?

So many questions. Do you have any answers?

  • These are definitely serious implications but, as you’ve pointed out, FB doesn’t have a public stance on human rights and internet censorship policies at this time.

    Would I be upset if FB caved to the pressures and went after the money? Yes. I’d rather FM use its power to urge countries who want the service but have awful censorship laws to make the compromise, as opposed to FB compromising.

    Will FB make a stand? I doubt it. At least not anytime soon.

    Do I think people will be upset? Yes, to a point. A lot of people have integrated FB into their lives, both personally and in a business sense.

    FB has some decisions to make and it seems like they’re in teh midst of determining the pros and cons of bending to China’s censorship in order to gain the marketshare there.

    Only time will tell.

    If FB follows censorship guidelines I think it’ll cause a lot of discussion, for a time, until something else pushes the story out of the limelight (wikileaks, mortgage defaults, Iraq).

    I wonder if FB will bow to Chinese law to get a foot in the door then slowly ease up on the censorship reigns as time goes on. That way FB wins the marketshare by temporarily forfeiting their reputation (which isn’t shiny by any means).

    Other thoughts?

  • wow Frank….I came across the title of your post on Alltop…and the title made me furious!!!!

    I thought who the $%^& does this guy think he is promoting censorship…..good thing I read your whole post!

    and I think on one hand having access to the technology (Facebook) would long term be more beneficial than not but is it Facebooks job to be the beacon of social tolerance and expression….maybe …I like to think that my generation is in the wake of building a technology that one day could reach every man, woman and child on the entire planet with a message of “we are all human and deserve equality ”

    this issue is so complicated because of overlapping social and political issues.

    Ps –great title 🙂

    • @David – Sorry to get you riled up! I guess the headline at least got your attention, right?

      While I doubt that the vast, vast majority of people will even know if Google is doing anything in China at all let alone something to suppress free speech and even further take the action to leave Facebook as a protest this can get troubling for the social media monster.

      I still can’t over the fact that their lobbyist’s last name is Conner. Let’s just go with Conman and get t over with!

      Thanks for stopping by and have a great day!

  • Anonymous

    Facebook is bad, they can screw up your privacy settings and lie to your face and mess with your brain if they think you’ve done something that makes your account not private!!!