By Ryan Tracy
WASHINGTON -- Mark Zuckerberg has spent the past two years apologizing to a chorus of critics for misinformation, privacy violations and more. On Thursday, the Facebook Inc. chief executive took the offensive, asserting a commitment to free expression as consistent with American values.
In a rare policy speech that will likely stir further debate over his company's role in politics and global social movements, Mr. Zuckerberg said he worries that "increasingly today across the spectrum, it seems like there are more people who prioritize getting the political outcomes that they want over making sure that everyone can be heard."
"I am here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression," he said in a talk at Georgetown University that cast Facebook as being in line with a tradition spanning the First Amendment and the civil-rights movement.
Mr. Zuckerberg's speech on Thursday took place amid brewing disagreements about whether Facebook should make judgments over whether political ads contain falsehoods, and days before the executive will appear on Capitol Hill to face lawmakers.
His comments will likely inflame critics, mostly from the left, who have argued the company should do more to prevent the spread of misinformation as the 2020 presidential campaign roars into top gear. At the same time, his speech was unlikely to fully satisfy critics on the right, who complain frequently about what they view as big-tech censorship.
While Mr. Zuckerberg has consistently cast himself as a defender of free expression, Facebook has spent much of the last two years trying to remediate public concerns about misinformation, hate speech and safety issues on its platform. Thursday's speech highlighted that the 35-year-old executive is worried about taking that too far.
The event gave Mr. Zuckerberg a chance to address policy makers on his terms, a contrast to congressional hearings where lawmakers control the dialogue. He said ahead of the speech that he wanted to communicate "an unfiltered take" on how he views questions around free expression on Facebook.
The speech is also a part of Facebook's stepped-up effort to court allies in Washington -- a campaign that has included Mr. Zuckberberg meeting privately with President Donald Trump, lawmakers in both parties and conservative commentators such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Facebook's standing in Washington has deteriorated since the 2016 election, with both parties criticizing the company for being a vehicle for disinformation and for repeatedly breaking its own promises to protect users' privacy.
This year, that political angst has hit the company's bottom line. Facebook agreed to pay a $5 billion fine for privacy violations in July, and its efforts to launch a new cryptocurrency-based payments network are in doubt due to criticism from policy makers. Most ominously, U.S. antitrust authorities, as well as state attorneys general, are investigating whether the company should face antitrust sanctions for abusing its market power.
Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged concerns about the company's power but he positioned social media's rise as a positive, calling it a "Fifth Estate."
"I actually believe the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralized power by putting it directly into people's hands," he added.
Facebook's power, along with that of other technology giants, has been a recurring topic in the Democratic presidential debates and on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers worry the company may be stifling competition and misusing Americans' personal data. They also have criticized Facebook's policing of content, but generally from different perspectives: Republicans say the company censors conservatives, while Democrats say the company allows right-wing groups to promote falsehoods.
"It would be hard to be biased against both sides," Mr. Zuckerberg cracked in a question and answer session with Georgetown students.
In response to rising regulatory threats, Mr. Zuckerberg has taken a much higher-profile role in Washington in recent months. He told his top lieutenants in a June meeting that he planned to lead the company more decisively during this critical phase.
This week he has been meeting more lawmakers, including the top Democrat and Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, where he is set to testify next week. By contrast, the company's most visible face for the past few years, operating chief Sheryl Sandberg, who has closer ties to Democrats, has had a lower profile in the nation's capital.
Outreach to Republicans isn't without risk. After his speech, Mr. Zuckerberg was set to tape an interview on Fox News. Media Matters, a nonprofit group critical of that network, on Thursday cited the interview and Mr. Zuckerberg's meeting with Mr. Carlson as evidence of "Facebook's CEO acting like a fully indoctrinated conservative puppet."
Silicon Valley peer Marc Benioff, the co-founder of Salesforce.com Inc., tweeted at Mr. Zuckerberg on Wednesday that Facebook "needs to be held accountable for the propaganda on its platform."
Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden have chastised the company for its policy not to take down political ads, even when those ads contain false statements. Ms. Warren has called for breaking up the company, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp. After the speech Thursday, Mr. Biden's campaign said that Zuckerberg "attempted to use the Constitution as a shield for his company's bottom line."
On Thursday, Mr. Zuckerberg said technology companies shouldn't censor politicians in a democracy.
"I don't think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies believe to be 100% true," he said. "We think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying."
Mr. Zuckerberg's speech evoked political themes. He mentioned "Air Force moms," church groups and small businesses that use the company's products. He touted Facebook's creation of an oversight board to weigh in on decisions about appropriate content.
He also emphasized Facebook's American roots, pointing out the company remains blocked in China because it hasn't been willing to concede to regulations there: "If another nation's platform set the rules, our discourse could be defined by a completely different set of values," he said.
He held out hope that if platforms and policy makers can solve some of the specific regulatory challenges, such as content regulation, privacy and data portability, that would quiet talk of breaking up the big tech companies. "If that happens then I basically don't think that people will end up concluding that breaking up the companies is the right thing to do," he said.
--John McKinnon contributed to this article.
Write to Ryan Tracy at firstname.lastname@example.org