Facebook's traffic in China has rebounded in early 2011 after dipping as low as 30,000 people last year, according to new data from Inside Facebook. The number of active monthly users jumped to 700,000 in early February, up from just over 100,000 at the beginning of January 2011. During 2010, the monthly total did not exceed that level.
The Facebook-tracking blog has previously reported that access to Facebook and Twitter was blocked in China in July 2009 after riots broke out between police and protesters in the Xinjiang province. Before then, Facebook had about 1 million active monthly users -- still a tiny fraction of China's 300 million Internet users and 1.3 billion people, but more than it has been since.
China, of course, is know for operating one of the largest and most sophisticated Internet filtering systems in the world. Its so-called Great Firewall uses a wide variety of overlapping techniques for blocking content and Web tools deemed politically threatening by the Chinese government, according to the OpenNet Initiative, which monitors Internet censorship globally.
In an effort to pry open the vast market, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg traveled to China in December to meet with some of the country's top technology executives. He has not hidden his interest in expanding there. "How can you connect the whole world if you leave out a billion people?" he told a group of entrepreneurs at Stanford University last fall.
With an estimated 600 million users worldwide -- 70% of whom are outside the U.S. -- Facebook could grow that much larger with a significant presence in China. Whether Zuckerberg's trip led to any loosening of restrictions that led to the spike in Facebook traffic since January isn't clear.
"There are so many complexities with the China market, and so many different ways that users may be getting around firewall constraints, that I'd take individual data points with a grain of salt," said Susan Su at Inside Facebook. "Instead, I think it's wise to look at the 700,000 number as a sort of alert to keep watching this area in the weeks and months to come."
At the same time, Facebook's role as a tool in organizing and mobilizing revolts that overthrew governments in Tunisia and Egypt can't be lost on Chinese officials. Despite a speech today by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterating a call for greater Internet freedom globally, it doesn't appear China will take any significant step to lift its online clampdown.
In the speech at George Washington University, Clinton noted that China's economic growth has been strong even while Internet censorship has been high. That's because many businesses have been willing to accept restrictive Internet rules to gain access to its markets. "But those restrictions will have long-term costs that threaten one day to become a noose that restrains growth and development," she said.
Whether Facebook's traffic in China continues to increase during the year or shrink back to lower levels could be one indicator of where the government's Internet policy is headed. And what -- if any -- restrictions Facebook is willing to accept to build its business in China is another question.