Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to increase censorship on Facebook in the Middle East to adhere to “cultural norms” in oppressive states.
His intention to let regimes around the world have more control over content was buried in a much-praised “manifesto” document on the future of Facebook.
Zuckerberg wrote a 5,700-word essay in which he sketched out plans for how the service will evolve – including substantial changes to how content is removed.
In the section on the site’s Community Standards policy, Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook would start to use a “local governance” rule for what gets obscured.
…Our community spans many countries and cultures, and the norms are different in each region. It’s not surprising that Europeans more frequently find fault with taking down images depicting nudity, since some European cultures are more accepting of nudity than, for example, many communities in the Middle East or Asia.
With a community of almost two billion people, it is less feasible to have a single set of standards to govern the entire community so we need to evolve towards a system of more local governance.
The essay phrased the shift in the language of personal choice – permissive folk in the West will be able to see more nudity, violence or politically charged speech.
This new standard would presumably eradicate a ridiculous instance where Facebook banned photos of a Renaissance statue in Italy because it was nude.
But there is obviously a flipside – namely that by abandoning any idea of a universal standard, Facebook will do less and less to oppose more restrictive regimes.
His service has been rightly criticized for kowtowing to oppressive local regimes and customs before.
For instance, Facebook censored posts mocking the king of Thailand because of local laws making it illegal to mock their royal family.
Last year Facebook shut down pages used by atheists in north Africa and the Middle East which were being used to criticise Islam.
It has also had run-ins with the Israeli authorities who objected to posts made by Palestinian groups.
An (admittedly old) analysis by Mashable in 2014 showed that Facebook was hyperactive in censoring content in India, Pakistan and Turkey due to restrictive local laws.
Facebook is known for being much less interested in principle than expanding its market.
For instance, a report in November claimed that Facebook was trying to woo the Chinese government by building extra censorship tools to make it palatable to a one-party state.
Not so long ago, Facebook showed it could be a major tool for subverting oppressive regimes, as seen when it became a catalyst in the Arab Spring uprisings.
But its desire to rock the boat or stand on any kind of principle has diminished as its business empire has grown. And Zuckerberg’s latest does nothing to change that.