Mark Zuckerberg’s plea for internet freedom means nothing if he keeps kissing up to China

Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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Mark Zuckerberg is an extremely competent CEO when it comes to building an enduring internet company. But he’s less skilled when it comes to navigating the politics of the internet, as evidenced by his statement during Brazil’s unexpected crackdown on WhatsApp.

After WhatsApp failed to comply with a Brazilian court order to hand over user data, a judge ordered domestic telcos to block access to the app. During the shutdown, which has since been lifted, Zuckerberg sent out the following post on Facebook:

Tonight, a Brazilian judge blocked WhatsApp for more than 100 million people who rely on it in her country.

We are working hard to get this block reversed. Until then, Facebook Messenger is still active and you can use it to communicate instead.

This is a sad day for Brazil. Until today, Brazil has been an ally in creating an open internet. Brazilians have always been among the most passionate in sharing their voice online.

I am stunned that our efforts to protect people’s data would result in such an extreme decision by a single judge to punish every person in Brazil who uses WhatsApp.

We hope the Brazilian courts quickly reverse course. If you’re Brazilian, please make your voice heard.

‪#‎ConnectBrazil‬ ‪#‎ConnectTheWorld‬

His statement came three months after he attended a conference in Seattle where he mingled with Xi Jinping and other Chinese government officials who oversee the country’s tightly controlled internet. Here he is shaking hands with Lu Wei, commonly known as China’s “internet czar.”

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Since the beginning of his tenure at China’s State Information Office in 2013, Lu has jailed several outspoken social media figures, waged a war on VPNs (tools that help people jump the Great Firewall), and overseen the “Great Cannon,” a censorship tool that conducted DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks on GitHub last spring. These attacks were arguably the first sign that China attempted to control the internet even outside of its own borders. He has also been a guest at Facebook’s headquarters.

Where was Zuckerberg’s statement when China blocked Instagram, another property owned by Facebook? Despite having a strong following in mainland China, it was rendered inaccessible in November 2014, right around the time of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement.

CEOs of internet companies are free to weigh the costs and benefits of entering China and complying with its censorship policies. But once you comply, chants for increased internet freedom in other parts of the world carry no credibility.