Facebook Censors Muhammad Images In Turkey & Blaming Mark Zuckberg Isn't The Answer

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 18: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Newseum September 18, 2013 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg participated in an interview with James Bennet, editor in chief of the Atlantic, on 'the knowledge economy', including Zuckerberg's involvement in the immigration debate. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Source: Win McNamee/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Recently, nobody has struggled more over a stance on free speech than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Two weeks after posting the powerful statement "Je Suis Charlie," a slogan that has come to embody the fight for free speech, Facebook in Turkey censored images of Muhammed. Complying with a court order from Ankara, Zuckerberg authorized the blocking of an unspecified number of pages, revealing a delicate balancing act that often clashes with the CEO's intentions.

Back on January 8, Zuckerberg wrote an assertive message about free speech on Facebook:
A few years ago, an extremist in Pakistan fought to have me sentenced to death because Facebook refused to ban content about Mohammed that offended him.

We stood up for this because different voices — even if they're sometimes offensive — can make the world a better and more interesting place.

Facebook has always been a place where people across the world share their views and ideas. We follow the laws in each country, but we never let one country or group of people dictate what people can share across the world.

Yet as I reflect on yesterday's attack and my own experience with extremism, this is what we all need to reject — a group of extremists trying to silence the voices and opinions of everyone else around the world.

I won't let that happen on Facebook. I'm committed to building a service where you can speak freely without fear of violence.

My thoughts are with the victims, their families, the people of France and the people all over the world who choose to share their views and ideas, even when that takes courage. ‪#‎JeSuisCharlie‬

This is Mark Zuckerberg at his boldest and most authentic. You can tell that he wrote this with true conviction, about an issue that hits close to him. But unfortunately, as the CEO of the biggest social network site in the world and a billion-dollar business, Zuckerberg often has to compromise his personal beliefs in order to run that business smoothly.

Which is what happened when a local court in Ankara issued an order to take down Facebook pages that depicted the Prophet Mohammed disparagingly. According to a source who spoke to The Washington Post, Facebook agreed to "block content so that it’s no longer visible in Turkey following a valid legal request." The court had threatened to block Turkish users' access to Facebook if the social site had resisted. Other major sites, such as Twitter and YouTube, have been blocked completely in the country for refusing to comply with similar requests.

Although Zuckerberg has been criticized for this apparently hypocritical decision, it's clearly one he had to make. There are roughly 40 million Facebook users in Turkey, which is rapidly becoming a rich market for international tech companies as its economy and digital users continue to grow.

And this isn't the first time Turkey has demanded Facebook take down pages. According to Facebook's most recent transparency report that covered the first half of 2014, Turkey made 1,893 censorship requests, and was the country with the second-highest number of requests behind India. A large portion of those requests stemmed from local laws that forbid the criticism of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

As a business, Facebook must obey the local laws of countries in which they operate, and thus comply with legal orders like the one issued by Turkey. So while nobody would doubt the sincerity of Zuckerberg's powerful statement on free speech, he unfortunately has to risk coming off hypocritical when running his business. And not only with Turkey, but with any country who has issued a valid request for censorship.

Over the years, Facebook has censored a few notable pages around the world. In some cases, it may have been just business, but every censorship seems to directly oppose Zuckerberg's personal views on free speech. Here are three incidents that stand out in particular. 

Russian Activist

In December, Facebook agreed to block a page supporting Alexei Navalny, Russia's most prominent Putin critic and activist. As he awaited sentencing for charges believed to be part of a smear campaign, Navalny's supporters had created an event page for a protest scheduled for the day of his verdict, but Facebook took the page down in Russia after more than 12,000 people clicked they were "going." 

According to a spokesperson for Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor, it was the prosecutor general's office who had requested to block the page.

Chinese Dissident

In 2013, Facebook suspended the account of exiled dissident writer Liao Yiwu after he posted pictures of an anti-government activist streaking. Facebook's relationship with China is especially tricky since Facebook is currently one of the many sites that's completely banned in the country, and Zuckerberg has been trying to change that for years. Thus, the pressure to comply to the Chinese government's demands are even greater, but the result is also more damaging for the CEO since the site does not even operate in China. 

Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer said at a Time panel discussion that the censorship of Liao was just another example of Zuckerberg "desperately trying to kiss Chinese bottom."    

The Uprising Of Women In The Arab World

In 2012, Facebook started censoring the page for The Uprising of Women in the Arab World, an advocacy group that fights for women's rights in the Middle East. When one of the group's members, a woman from Syria, posted a picture of herself without a hijab holding a sign that read "I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years I was not allowed to feel the wind in my hair and on my body," Facebook took it down.

The picture was part of a campaign that asked Facebook users why they support the Uprising of Women in the Arab World. Facebook continued to remove the image and suspended the accounts of several administrators after repeated attempts to post the picture. 


Images: Getty Images (2),
Arab Feminists/Facebook

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