Last week we reported on China’s propaganda-driven World Internet Conference and noted with surprise the presence of executives from a number of international tech companies, including Facebook.
Facebook is blocked in China, and despite the fact that founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg is married to someone of Chinese-American descent and has recently been learning Mandarin, there has been no firm indications that the company was willing to comply with the censorship and surveillance requirements set by the Chinese Communist regime for market entry.
Until now. Because a report in the New York Times this week cites information from three anonymous current and former Facebook employees which suggests that the company has been quietly developing a content censoring tool.
The report states that the software would be able to suppress posts from appearing in news feeds for people located in certain geographic areas.
It is not intended that the tool would be operated by Facebook itself. Instead, the software would be made available to a partner company in China who would be able to monitor and censor content in line with the Chinese Communist regime’s requirements.
The report does stress that the software is one of a number of different approaches that Facebook has been exploring, and it has not yet been demonstrated to Chinese Communist Party officials. But the fact that it moved on from the planning stage and into development does suggest that Facebook bosses do see a future for it.
According to the New York Times’ sources, Mark Zuckerberg himself is both aware and supportive of the tool.
Entering China presents Facebook with a hugely challenging moral quandary. Of course, they want a slice of the internet and smartphone-crazy market in a country with the world’s biggest population. Facebook’s runaway success in places like Taiwan and Hong Kong show that there is a huge demand for the service in Chinese cultures.
But the Communist regime in China operates the world’s strictest and most intrusive online censorship and surveillance programmes, and have no intentions of compromising it for Facebook.
But for Facebook, complying with their demands would be in breach of one of the company’s core mission statements, which states that Facebook must “make the world more open and connected.”
Yet, this is something they have been willing to compromise elsewhere in the world. In the second half of 2015, by their own admission Facebook blocked around 55,000 items across 20 different countries including Pakistan, Turkey, and Russia.
But there is a difference. That was reactive blocking, on the request of those governments. What the Chinese regime demands, and what the new tool is designed to do, is proactively block content before it gets onto news feeds in the first place.
Whether Facebook is willing to take that moral leap remains to be seen and publicly the company has been reluctant to address the issue.
But their presence at the much-maligned World Internet Forum suggests a desire to build bridges with the Chinese regime. And the New York Times reports that Mark Zuckerberg himself addressed the issue in a weekly Q&A session with staff at the company headquarters.
They quote employees who were there claiming that Zuckerberg said of Facebook’s plans for entry into China that “It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation.”
The implication of that suggests that they would be willing to play ball with the world’s worst online censorship, despite the damage it would cause to their image in the free world and the likelihood that it would lead to further censorship calls from other authoritarian regimes around the world.
For now, users in China can only access Facebook through a VPN, and for the time being at least, that looks likely to remain unchanged. But these latest revelations suggest it may only be a matter of time before Facebook become the latest big tech company to dip their toes in the censorship water.