Facebook Attempts To ‘Friend’ China With Censorship Tool

Facebook, the social networking site that has long been banned in China, is reportedly devising a tool that will automatically censor certain users’ posts and prevent people in some geographic locations from seeing information that could be controversial in China — steps seen as an attempt by the company to get the ban lifted.

Removing the prohibition would be a massive boost to Facebook in terms of millions of potential new users, and the business possibilities such as new advertising. Gaining access to the Chinese internet market would allow the company to compete with such popular domestic social networking sites as Renren, which was one of the earliest such sites, or more recent alternatives that have gained success including WeChat and Weibo. [1]

The financial incentive alone is seen as the reason why Facebook, under the leadership of Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, is said to be developing censorship software, as first reported last month by the New York Times. If Facebook can devise software that helps block features that the Chinese government opposes, it could ultimately convince the government to lift the bar on Facebook operating in the country.

Facebook does not give any comments

Facebook has declined to comment to news organizations about the tool, but several sources from the social networking site told the Times that the tool under secret development would allow a third party to track stories that are proving popular and being shared widely on the site, and block content seen as inappropriate in China. This means that if a Chinese Facebook user were to try and share a controversial story about the country’s government, the third party would already be tracking it and could block others in China from seeing the story. [2]

Under this approach Facebook could still potentially claim in public to not be suppressing content, because the Times says that the third party — and not Facebook — would conduct the censoring.

Censorship in China

If successful, the censorship tool could help to reverse the ban that the Chinese government put in place back in 2009 following the riots in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. China believed that Facebook helped activists who supported independence from the country for Xinjiang to spread information that exacerbated the riots. It swiftly blocked Facebook in its entirety. Instead, China only allowed social networking sites like Renren to exist, because they complied with all government requirements on content monitoring and filtering. [3]

Since then, Zuckerberg has taken steps in recent years that are seen as trying to reach a compromise with the Chinese, including visits to the country and giving a speech in Mandarin. However, those efforts have to date not led to any widespread permission for Facebook to operate on the mainland. [4]

The South China Morning Post reported in September 2013 that some access to the site is possible in the Shanghai free trade zone, but that is a limited market compared to an entire country. [5]

Therefore, it appears that Facebook realizes it needs to take extra steps to lift the ban that remains in place, and its censorship tool could be one way for it to “friend” the Chinese government.

[1] http://blog.tutorming.com/business/chinese-social-media-sites

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/22/technology/facebook-censorship-tool-china.html?_r=0

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_of_Facebook

[4] http://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/042915/why-facebook-banned-china.asp

[5] http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1316598/exclusive-china-lift-ban-facebook-only-within-shanghai-free-trade-zone

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