It's been pretty obvious for a while that Facebook wants to reenter China, a country it has been banned in since 2008. While the relationship between the two has been icy, more recently it seems like efforts to ingratiate to the Chinese government have been paying off.
Earlier this year, for example, Mark Zuckerberg met with Liu Yunshan, China’s propaganda chief, who expressed interest in working with the company.
Now comes the biggest, and perhaps more discouraging, sign of all: Facebook is said to be developing a censorship tool aimed directly at appeasing the Chinese government to let the company back into its good graces, the New York Times reported on Tuesday night.
The software would stop posts from appearing based on the geographic location of the user. That would let a third-party, likely a Chinese company, would have full control and be able to decide which stories and topics users get to see.
Zuckerberg himself is said to be supporting and defending the effort.
The implications of this kind of software are troubling, to say the least. As the Times points out, Facebook lets other countries block content after it is posted, including Pakistan, Russia and Turkey, but at least some people in those countries get to see it before it's taken down. In this case, those Chinese citizens would never see it in the first place, and what they did get to see would be dictated by those with their own interests, whether it be their government or private businesses.
It's easy to see why Facebook wants to get into China. Last year, Zuckerberg said it was still one of the company's biggest ad markets due to Chinese businesses using it to sell products outside of their home country.
The company is now seeing huge gains in Asia already, even without Chinese users. Earlier this year, Facebook said it was growing its user base at around 14 percent globally, it's adding users in Asia at an even faster rate, 20 percent. By the end of last year, there were 540 million Facebook users in Asia, more than a third of its 1.59 billion total users. That was up from 449 million at the end of 2014.
Of those users, 130 million are in India, the company's second largest market. Another 37 million are in Thailand, Indonesia has 82 million, the Philippines has 24 million and there are 21 million Facebook users in Vietnam.
China also happens to have the largest number of Internet users on the planet. It's not hard to envision a scenario in which China, and Asia, become its biggest market. That is a prospect that I can't imagine any company passing up.
Facebook has found itself mired in numerous crises this year as it related to its content, whether that be allegations that it was suppressing conservative viewpoints, or accusations that it was spreading so much fake news it was enough to sway a presidential election.
While, so far, there's no indication that Facebook has used the software, or given to the Chinese, the fact that it exists, and is being supported at the highest levels of the company, will no doubt only add fuel to that fire.
It's understandable that Facebook wants to get China to open itself up, but that does not mean that such a move would be consequence free. The company should perhaps look at what happened when LinkedIn struck a deal to enter the country, and immediately came under fire for bowing to Chinese censorship laws.
After LinkedIn made its China announcement, the company also came under fire after it admitted that it was only able to operate there because it complied with law that allowed the government to censor the site. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner defended the decision in a blog post written shortly after.
"As a condition for operating in the country, the government of China imposes censorship requirements on Internet platforms. LinkedIn strongly supports freedom of expression and fundamentally disagrees with government censorship," Weiner said.
"At the same time, we also believe that LinkedIn’s absence in China would deny Chinese professionals a means to connect with others on our global platform, thereby limiting the ability of individual Chinese citizens to pursue and realize the economic opportunities, dreams and rights most important to them."
Facebook does not need any more accusations of its platform being manipulated for the spread of incomplete, or inaccurate, information. If it were to go ahead with this plan, those allegations would be absolutely justified.
"We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country. However, we have not made any decision on our approach to China. Our focus right now is on helping Chinese businesses and developers expand to new markets outside China by using our ad platform," a Facebook spokesperson told VatorNews when reached for comment.
(Image source: westherald.com)