Commentary

Facebook's Chinese Compromise May Come Up Short

As noted in a previous column, Facebook seems to be prepared to throw free speech under the bus in its campaign to bring Facebook to China, where the social network is currently blocked. Aware that agreeing to censorship will open it to charges of collaborating with an authoritarian regime, Facebook may try to preserve a modicum of integrity by alerting users to the fact that the Chinese government requires it to engage in censorship. But this compromise -- in reality a fig leaf as it abandons its own core principles -- may still come up short.

According to most news reports, Facebook is moving to partner with Baidu, China's dominant search provider, to launch the Chinese version of Facebook. The reasons are clear enough: China's 1.3 billion people, who represent the largest untapped market for Facebook on the planet. As part of this plan, All Things Digital reports that  founder Mark Zuckerberg wants to launch the Chinese version of Facebook as an extension of the existing global network, rather than a standalone network limited to China.

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This goal is laudable, in one sense, because it will open up channels of communication between regular Chinese and people in other parts of the world. But it also raises some obvious problems, since the Chinese version will still be operating under serious constraints in terms of surveillance and censorship. Essentially the Chinese part of Facebook will be less free than other parts of Facebook -- and to maintain even a minimal standard of transparency, Facebook must at the very least publicize this fact to foreign users who are communicating with Facebook users in China, lest they be deceived about the degree of freedom enjoyed by their Chinese counterparts.

To deal with this problem, Facebook is said to be considering posting a message alerting users who visit Chinese profiles to the fact that these profiles are subject to government surveillance and censorship. This seems like an effective solution, allowing Facebook to gain access to the Chinese market while appearing to uphold some degree of integrity. But I wonder whether they (and their Chinese partners) have run this by the Chinese government, which doesn't like to have attention drawn to its practice of online censorship.

Indeed, you might say the first rule of online censorship is that you don't talk about online censorship; this is one of the ways the government tries to lower the profile of its repressive measures, in the hopes of keeping its population docile and burnishing its image as a supposed democracy in the eyes of foreigners. In 2006 the Washington Post obtained a list of keywords banned by the Chinese government, which included (alongside expected overtly political terms like "dictatorship" and "democracy") a number of words referring to the practice of online censorship itself. Among the examples were "censorship," "cleaning and rectifying Web sites," "News blockade," "bug," "wiretap," as well as seemingly innocuous terms like "Internet commentator."

In this context I can only imagine the Chinese government will look askance on a social network which regularly reminds users that it is engaging in surveillance and censorship. What authoritarian regime would consent to being called out on their (admittedly futile) attempts to control public opinion?

1 comment about "Facebook's Chinese Compromise May Come Up Short".
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  1. Andre Szykier from maps capital management, April 28, 2011 at 4:34 p.m.

    Hope Zuck realizes that Facebook China will have to open up their log files, profiles and social media behavior for real time analysis by the China State Council watchdog doing the monitoring. That will, in itself, kill the deal because it would put the govt inside Baidu and/or Tencent, something they don't need given they are "private" entities.

    Zuck....back to the drawing board :}

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