Zuckerberg discusses balance between local laws and free speech

Requests to remove content sometimes conflict with Facebook's larger goals, the CEO said

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, speaking during the company's first international town-hall meeting in Bogota, Colombia.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, speaking during the company's first international town-hall meeting in Bogota, Colombia.

Mark Zuckerberg tackled the thorny issue of how to balance free speech with local laws at Facebook's first international town-hall Q&A in Colombia on Wednesday.

"Most countries have laws restricting some form of speech or another," the CEO said. If Facebook were to let users post something that would be illegal in their country, would that result in more people being able to express themselves? The best course of action is often to remove the content, he suggested.

"If you break the law in a country, often times the country blocks the service entirely," Zuckerberg said.

He was responding to a question about whether Facebook would break the law in a country that curtails free speech in order to empower its users.

Facebook's philosophy, Zuckerberg said, is to give people as many tools as possible to express themselves. The company sometimes pushes back against government requests to block content, he said, but Facebook must respect local laws.

The issue of freedom of speech is front and center after the shootings last week in Paris at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

At the time, Zuckerberg aligned himself with those advocating for the freedom to publish, writing a post that ended with the hash tag "JeSuisCharlie."

His comments were quickly criticized by some, who noted that Facebook has its own, sometimes seemingly arbitrary rules about posts it will not display.

On Wednesday, a person from Pakistan in a question submitted online, asked Zuckerberg why he decided to speak out about the shootings. The attack is relevant to Facebook because it wants to connect the world and give everyone a voice, the CEO replied.

In the first half of 2014, Facebook blocked access to thousands of pieces of content, though mostly in India and Turkey, according to its latest transparency report. In India, for instance, local laws prohibit criticism of religion or the state, the company said.

No content was blocked in Latin America, according to the report.

When responding to a request from a country, Facebook may restrict the content from being viewed in that country, but will not remove it elsewhere.

Overall, "our responsibility is to continue pushing to give people the ability to share as much as possible," Zuckerberg said Wednesday, from the Q&A at Bogota's Pontifical Xavierian University. The questions were submitted in advance online and by a live audience.

Questions around Internet connectivity also came up. People asked what Facebook is doing to help get more people in the world online. Not by coincidence, Facebook launched its Internet.org app in Colombia on Wednesday, providing basic Internet service to customers of the local carrier Tigo.

One person in the audience asked how well the app will perform in Colombia, given the country's poor infrastructure. That can be a challenge, Zuckerberg said, especially when companies in Silicon Valley don't consider how their software might perform in other countries.

"There needs to be a bigger focus on faster apps that need less data to use," he said.

Facebook's Innovation Lab, which lets companies simulate how their apps might perform on other networks, could help, he said.

It wouldn't be a Facebook Q&A with at least one question about products or features. One person wanted to know if Facebook will roll out an "I've read this" button to stop posts appearing in their feed multiple times.

That won't happen, Zuckerberg said, though there's already is drop down menu on posts where people can indicate "I don't want to see this." That makes fewer posts of that type appear.

Facebook's algorithm tends to highlight posts when there's new activity around them, Zuckerberg said. Otherwise, if someone has a lot of friends, there's too much content to scroll through.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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Zach Miners

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