Facebook Allegedly Builds Censorship Software to Enter China

by Priscilla Guo

Since 2009, Facebook has been attempting to enter the Chinese market, which represents an Internet population of 700 million and counting. The actual population of the country is 1.4 billion people. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has paid multiple visits to top Chinese Internet executives as well as China’s propaganda chief and has even started learning Mandarin. However, these attempts have been to no avail in lifting the seven-year ban. Currently, the only way to gain access to Facebook in China is through a virtual private network (VPN), which is a method of spoofing your actual location in order to circumvent local Internet restrictions.

Facebook has purportedly been developing software that would suppress posts from appearing in user news feeds in specific geographic regions. Vaughan Smith, the vice president for mobile, corporate, and business development at Facebook, led the project to develop the censorship software. Thus far, the company has neither confirmed nor denied the software’s existence. The New York Times was first made aware of the software through a handful of whistleblowers at the company. The New York Times reports that this bold move may compromise one of the company’s core mission statements—“to make the world more open and connected”.

Facebook has already removed content at the request of governments in France, Russia, and Pakistan, and it publishes an annual report of the take-down notices it receives. Between July 2015 and December 2015, Facebook has blocked roughly 55,000 pieces of content in about 20 countries. However, in contrast to take-downs, this censorship software would prevent content from surfacing in the first place. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) global policy analyst Eva Galperin notes her concern: "Facebook would be trading in their principles in exchange for access to the market. It would have tremendous implications for human rights." According to the New York Times, Facebook will not decide what content to suppress, but instead it will offer the software to a third party to monitor stories on the social media platform. The Chinese partner company would not only relieve Facebook of the censorship burden but also provide the company with connections to local government and direct communication to Beijing.

The underlying principle behind China’s Great Firewall is the idea of Internet sovereignty, which claims that states have the right to control how technology affects their citizens. The Guardian reports: “Censorship is the biggest requirement, and then they should start to invest in the ecosystem around them, in Chinese startups and funds, to show that they are friends of China,” said Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Companies like WeChat and Weibo have kept their business operating licenses and dominate the Chinese market due to their compliance with government censorship.

It doesn’t seem as though censorship will be enough with China’s new cybersecurity law requiring data localization of foreign technology companies. It would be an interesting gamble for Facebook to undertake since gaining entrance into the Chinese market might undermine the trust of non-Chinese users. The censorship in China would have greater implications for global censorship since content from outside China could get blocked. Twitter and Google remain blocked in China.