Speaking at Georgetown University, Mark Zuckerberg’s message was to not break up Facebook or we won’t be able to defeat China.
Mark Zuckerberg thinks Facebook is the internet.
That was the obvious conclusion, listening to the Facebook chief executive speak at Georgetown University.
Billed as “a conversation on free expression,” this was in fact a speech, followed by pre-selected questions from students.
In his address, Mr Zuckerberg talked constantly about “the internet”. But, when he did, he really seemed to be referring to Facebook.
The Black Lives Matter movement, he said, went viral on Facebook. Then he went on: “Without the internet, it wouldn’t have reached so many people.”
“Many of the arguments about online speech,” he added later, “are related to new properties of the internet itself.”
This was true – but also slightly misleading. For while internet services do have common features, they also have important differences.
Even among the social networks Mr Zuckerberg owns, there are crucial distinctions. Instagram is friendly but insincere. Facebook is utilitarian but plagued by misinformation. WhatsApp is handy but incessant.
What makes one service more enjoyable to use than another? What promotes civility across the board, even at the expense of advertising revenue? On these questions, Mr Zuckerberg was silent.
The Facebook boss pulled the same trick when he talked about “voice” – the theme of his talk.
By “voice” he meant the ability for people to express themselves and be heard, something he described as his defining purpose.
The ideal – “giving power to the powerless,” as he put it – was admirable. The problem was the way Mr Zuckerberg connected giving people a voice with the growth of Facebook.
For not all “voices” are expressed in the same way.
Will expressing your voice mean you’re deluged by abuse? Will your statements be amplified out of all proportion by an algorithm? Will your words be accessible, or hidden, or accidentally broadcast thanks to deceptive privacy settings?
“Voting is voice,” said Mr Zuckerberg.
Yes, but there are many ways to vote, from public to secret to solitary, and many ways to turn votes into political representation. The setting matters.
When it came to the internet, Mr Zuckerberg implicitly acknowledged this, when his speech turned to China.
Saying that China was building its own version of the internet, Mr Zuckerberg warned it was now competing with the US to export its version to foreign countries.
In this way, he sought to find common interests with his American audience. You might not like Facebook, he said, but at least it’s not China.
He also made what may well turn out to be a powerful argument against tough regulation. Having defined Facebook as the internet, Mr Zuckerberg argued that we need to save the internet from Chinese influence.
His message: Don’t break us up, or we won’t be able to defeat China.
The idea is gaining favour among politicians in Washington and Westminster. Have no doubt, this was the real audience of this speech.
By that measure, Mr Zuckerberg can probably call this a successful outing.