This week, as Facbook mulls its entrance into China, an excerpt from Steven Levy's Google book should serve as a cautionary tale for Facebook's 26-year-old CEO. In a chapter covering Google's decision to stop censoring its search results in China, Levy cites a "knowledgeable but not firsthand source" who says Google co-founder Sergey Brin threatened to quit the company if it continued to censor its content. "He was passionate in his insistence," writes Levy. "Schmidt was not convinced. But Brin was adamant: Google was under attack by the forces of evil, and if his fellow executives did not see things his way, they were supporting evil." Brin's resolve in the face of immense corporate pressure to stay in China and gain a foothold in the world's largest Internet market is a testament to his commitment to free speech. But can the world expect Mark Zuckerberg to uphold these same values? Here are two reasons we should be worried:
What We Know So Far Isn't Promising In December, Zuckerberg met with leaders of Baidu, China's most-used search engine, which censors controversial articles such as Tienanmen Square at the behest of the government. This week, Baidu's shares rose 5 percent following a report that Facebook and Baidu had signed an agreement to launch a social network together. According to the report's sources, the social network would not be integrated with Facebook's international service, a likely sign that content would be censored. After the report came out, Facebook denied that an agreement had been signed but did admit it was evaluating business opportunities in China.
Zuckerberg and Brin Come From Different Places on This Issue Brin's crusade to steer Google away from China was truly unique and that's probably because of his life story. As many have reported, Brin came to the U.S. in 1979 at the age of 6 from the Soviet Union. "Mr. Brin said memories of that time—having his home visited by Russian police, witnessing anti-Semitic discrimination against his father—bolstered his view that it was time to abandon Google's policy," reported Jessica Vascellaro for The Wall Street Journal last year. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, grew up in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Obviously, that doesn't preclude him from supporting fundamental American values like free speech but the dangers of totalitarianism are likely not felt as strongly. It would also be foolish not to mention Zuckerberg's age. Facing down a boardroom of suits is intimidating, especially when you're 26-years-old. Brin is 37 and had more experience in the corporate world by the time he faced the great China question. Reading New Yorker staffer Ken Auletta's take on the China decision is even more impressive. According to Auletta, Brin faced off with Schmidt for months on the China issue. He cites it as one of the key reasons Schmidt stepped down as CEO. Would Zuckerberg do the same thing given similar corporate pressures?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.