On Tuesday afternoon, Facebook welcomed Israeli president Shimon Peres to its campus, where he spoke to the company's leadership about everything from Israeli's tech industry to the role of social media in promoting world peace. Peres launched his very own Facebook page the same day -- tagline: "Be my friend, share peace" -- and broadcast his sit-down with C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg. "The matter of peace is no longer the business of governments but the business of people," Peres told Sandberg. "Today the people are governing the governments. And when they begin to talk to each other, they are surprised: We should be friends." On Wednesday morning, this yielded such headlines as "Israel's Peres looks to Facebook in search of peace" and "Peres at Facebook HQ: Social media lets citizens bypass governments in peace process."
Peres deserves credit for his forward-thinking, but his proposition stands on shaky grounds. If, to borrow that second headline (from The Washington Post), Facebook presents a new extra-governmental route to diplomacy, the governments should stay out of the way and let the people speak. But that isn't how it works in certain parts of the world.
We saw last year during the Arab Spring what a powerful self-organizing tool Facebook can be. The uprising in Egypt quickly became known as the "Facebook Revolution," but in countries like China and Iran, the people simply didn't have access. Take the uprising the year before in Tehran, for example. In response to the protesters' use of Twitter and Facebook, the Iranian government simply blocked the sites. Facebook mourned the decision -- “We are disappointed to learn of reports that users in Iran may not have access to Facebook, especially at a time when voters are turning to the Internet as a source of information about election candidates and their positions," said a spokesperson -- but has since continued to work with regimes that censor the Internet in an attempt to keep growing. Mark Zuckerberg very publicly traveled to China last year as he was considering the possibility of expanding there. To operate in China, Facebook would undoubtedly need to conform to that country's "Great Firewall." Twitter, similarly, announced new technology that would allow them to respect governments' requests for the censorship of certain kinds of tweets. And Google might have pulled back temporarily from China, but it's also bent its rules around freedom of speech in India.
So what does this all have to do with Facebook in Israel? It simply means that there's been a dangerous precedent established by social media companies of condoning censorship, when certain governments decide its time to muzzle the voice of the people. It doesn't have to be this way, and we have no reason to doubt Peres' intentions in taking to Facebook for some public diplomacy. His new page is already building a buzz in the social media space. (Check out the sweet remix of his "Friend me" speech that we found on YouTube -- it's embedded at the bottom of the page.)
Sounds good, President Peres. Now please talk to your fellow heads of state about quitting their habit of censoring the Internet. That's some change we can really believe in.