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