October 26, 2017   2 mins

This is the fifth of ten themes in Nigel Cameron’s open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, exploring obstacles to him seeking the US presidency. Click here for whole series. 

There are plenty of us who think that a president who is Mandarin-speaking (as you are) would be a wonderful idea. Beijing will be our biggest rival and our closest strategic partner throughout this 21st century and it’s not going English-speaking any time soon.

Which makes it all the more important that we should be able to trust you on the China front. And if we get into a campaign, there will be serious scrutiny of how Facebook has handled the demands of the Chinese government.

That’s why it was especially disturbing to hear that your company is engaged in detailed preparation for a potential return to China – and by detailed preparation I fear I mean the development of software that will identify and suppress material likely to offend Beijing’s rulers1. Is this true? I know, it’s complex to operate in another country and that every country has its own rules. But freedom-loving westerners need to make hard choices. Cambridge University Press just decided to refuse to unpublish hundreds of articles on subjects like Tibet and Tiananmen Square from its academic journals2 The Chinese may ban CUP entirely in response or maybe they will decide that, on balance, they would rather have the benefits of access to its enormous store of knowledge.

Unfortunately it’s not just China where Facebook appears ready to compromise in order to maintain a piece of the market. It removed a page that was advertising a protest in support of the democracy campaigner Alexei Navalny – at the request of the Kremlin3 By the way of another example, it has removed materials regarded by Pakistan’s government as “blasphemous”4

So: what about a Facebook Charter on Free Speech and Human Rights Worldwide, setting out, in the most transparent terms, what local and national laws you are wiling to operate within and what kinds of censorious laws or interventions are too compromising? This Charter could be endorsed by the board and audited by independent outsiders? And can you clarify if there’s truth behind the New York Times story? And whether you have nixed the project?

Part 6: Do more to help the fight against terror

  1.  Mike Isaac, “Facebook Said to Create Censorship Tool to Get Back Into China,” New York Times, 22 November, 2016
  2.  Maev Kennedy and Tom Philipps in The Guardian, 21 August, 2017. “Cambridge University Press backs down over China censorship.”
  3.  The Verge, 22 December 2017
  4.  Daily Mail, 28 March 2017

Nigel Cameron writes about technology, society, and the future. In 2007 he founded the Washington think tank The Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His most recent book is Will Robots Take Your Job?