×

Facebook's descent into the rabbit hole of censorship 'is suicidal'

In this Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, file photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, talks with Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, right, as Lu Wei, left, China's Internet czar, looks on during a gathering of CEOs and other executives at Microsoft's main campus in Redmond, Wash.
Ted S. Warren | AP
In this Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, file photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, talks with Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, right, as Lu Wei, left, China's Internet czar, looks on during a gathering of CEOs and other executives at Microsoft's main campus in Redmond, Wash.

First, American politicians from both parties started to favor some level of censorship and curtailed free speech rights for people and groups posting online. Then print media joined in the fray.

In both cases, these moves against the First Amendment weren't excusable, but they were understandable considering the protections politicians wanted from online criticism and the established media wanted from web competition. But Facebook's continued and recently accelerated descent into the rabbit hole of censorship and capitulation to the dangerous anti-free speech movement is more than ethically disturbing, it's suicidal.

First, a little history. The initial government shot fired against free speech on the Internet came in 1996 when the Republican Congress and the Clinton administration worked together to craft and enact the Communication Decency Act. Elected officials who supported the measure insisted it was mostly aimed at cutting down on pornography.

Print publications stood silent in tacit support of said "decency." But the real reasons were simple: the political establishment didn't want to have to deal with the inevitably infinite new sources of news, political commentary, and quasi-electioneering on the Internet. The print media didn't want to deal with the inevitably infinite new sources of competition.

Thankfully, the federal courts almost immediately recognized the inherently anti-First Amendment aspects of the law and gutted it just one year later. This event remains the biggest reason why the government and all partisan political groups have been unable to silence dissent on the web in the United States.

But the efforts by the political establishment here and worldwide to decrease the influence of the Internet never went away. Note the new post-election obsession, mostly from the Left but also from some moderate and Republican circles, against so-called "fake news." Now, there is merit to flagging items and even entire sites that are literally made up stories made to look like breaking news. But I'm also hearing of attempts to ban partisan sites, including newly appointed top Trump adviser Steve Bannon's former Breitbart News.

These sites are not actually accused of running inaccurate or made up stories as much as they're being painted as "fake" for being mostly home to political opinion as opposed to breaking news or current events.

"One of Facebook's biggest challenges to growth has been the fact that younger potential users often see it as not "cool" because so many older people use it. If that's the case, then how much less cool will Facebook look when it becomes known as nothing more than a boring public utility under the thumb of the positively ancient people who tend to run totalitarian countries?"

For some reason, people who visit these sites are not supposed to be smart enough or trusted to know that they are basically opinion forums and not original news providers or distributors. Facebook jumped at the chance to get into this effort, promising to censor these "fake news" sites as soon as it can get a really good list of them from the wise and unbiased angels out there who will no doubt compile it. But don't expect Mother Jones or even the Socialist Worker to find its way on that list. That's just a hunch.

But the witch hunt on conservative opinion sites is nothing compared to the latest and truly most disturbing news that Facebook has now reportedly created a new censorship tool in hopes it will convince the repressive Chinese government to allow the social media site to operate again in the country.

The New York Times further reports that this censorship tool will be more aggressive than others Facebook uses in countries like Russia and Turkey. The only potential good news is that the same reports say the potential censorship programs may never actually see the light of day and no deal with China seems imminent... for now.

But the intent here is the real problem. In the first place, it shows a decidedly broken moral compass. You know how they keep telling us that open and free trade and relations with totalitarian countries will someday soon lead to more freedom in those countries as its people become more and more exposed to our way of life?

All of that goes out the window when the businesses and politicians trading and dealing with those countries agree to censor the things that make free society free in the first place. Facebook is guilty of this every time it agrees to erase even the evidence of American political free speech with censorship. Politicians are guilty of this every time a female American envoy agrees to ignore our firm belief in religious pluralism by donning a hijab when visiting even non-religious sites in a Muslim country. The list goes on, but the exchange of free ideas and principles is killed by these kinds of unjustified concessions and they destroy the very best reasons for international relations.

But there's a free market financial foolhardiness involved too, especially in the long run. Sure we all get the initial financial lure of wanting to do business in China. The number one natural resource for the world's most populous country has always been the potential foreign investors see in selling their goods and services to that massive population.

But there is a very serious "penny wise and pound foolish" scenario connected to all of this too. Facebook may gain a foothold in China, but how well will the company function if it jeopardizes its position in the free world by doing so? One of Facebook's biggest challenges to growth has been the fact that younger potential users often see it as not "cool" because so many older people use it. If that's the case, then how much less cool will Facebook look when it becomes known as nothing more than a boring public utility under the thumb of the positively ancient people who tend to run totalitarian countries?

And of course, the biggest threat from all of this is it gives Facebook competitors a much lower bar to clear when it comes to claims that they are more welcoming of all users and all ideas. If Facebook kept its censorship efforts to cracking down on truly hateful and violent content, it would be hard for a new social media site to find a stronger free speech niche.

But that's getting easier and easier. One site called Gab is promoting itself as an alternative to Facebook and Twitter and is actively courting and winning over mostly right wing individuals and groups often banned by the traditional sites. Gab counts people like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos among its earliest users. Will Gab bring down Facebook and Twitter? It's not likely; certainly not on its own. But every little bit hurts.

Still, if Facebook continues to betray free speech consistently it will fail. It will fail commercially by becoming such a tool of each and every government across the world that people will start to think of using it as being just as unwise as posting pictures of their bachelor party on the DMV website.

No one will trust putting personal information on it or engage in the kind of long-running debates in the comments sections that boost user times and ad revenue. If you think the nastiness and hysteria you've seen on social media since Donald Trump was elected has made people want to take a Facebook break, wait until you see what social media would be like if no one wanted to share anything there at all.

Maybe it's not the government or the incoming Trump team that needs to punish companies or curb free speech as much as the companies themselves need to ask themselves if there's a better way to expand without betraying the freedoms that gave birth to them in the first place.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.