Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday launched a defense of how tech companies promote and regulate free speech, arguing that Facebook and its peers make up a new "fifth estate" in society alongside the traditional news media.
Zuckerberg, in a speech at Georgetown University, echoed language from the 18th Century, when people first began referring to journalists in the press as a "fourth estate" co-existing with three existing tiers in the British Parliament.
"It is a fifth estate, alongside the other power structures in our society," Zuckerberg said in the speech, broadcast online. "People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences."
Zuckerberg's views on free expression have wide-ranging effects because, as Facebook's controlling shareholder and chief executive, he has final say in all of the company's policies and products, which billions of people worldwide use monthly.
He has frequently rewritten Facebook's speech rulebook depending on changing circumstances. Recently, the company eliminated a rule that for years had banned advertisements with "false or misleading content," and ahead of the 2020 presidential election, it has said it will not attempt to fact-check the ads of political candidates.
Zuckerberg defended those decisions on Thursday.
"We think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying," he said. "I don't think it's right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy."
Banning political ads on Facebook, as some have proposed, would favor incumbents and whomever the media chooses to cover, he added. "There are going to be issues any way you cut this," he said. "We should err on the side of greater expression."
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has called for breaking up or heavily regulating big tech companies such as Facebook, last week harshly criticized Facebook for its handling of political advertising.
"Facebook changed their ads policy to allow politicians to run ads with known lies — explicitly turning the platform into a disinformation-for-profit machine," she said on Saturday.
Zuckerberg told the audience at Georgetown, where students waiting in line for hours to attend the speech, that he understood concerns about tech platforms having centralized power.
"But I actually believe that the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralized power by putting it directly into people's hands," he said. "It's part of this amazing expansion of voice that we've experienced through law, culture and now technology, as well."
Zuckerberg's speech was met with more skepticism even before it started from people who said they were tired of him shifting Facebook's policies on a whim.
"It's not like he won't flip on a dime on this when the push comes to shove," Can Duruk, a software engineer who writes a tech newsletter, said on Twitter.