Why Facebook's China adventure will need more than censorship to succeed

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Facebook needs to invest in more than just censorship tools if it hopes to lift a seven-year ban in China, experts say, amid a tightening space for foreign technology companies in the world’s most populous nation.

Last week it emerged Facebook is working on software designed to suppress content – widely seen as a prerequisite to ending the ban, put in place in the wake of deadly ethnic riots in 2009 in attempt to quell the sharing of information about the violence.

Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, have embarked on a high-profile and often controversial campaign to lift the China block in recent years.

“Censorship is the biggest requirement,” said Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, “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.”

Facebook would need to partner with a local company and would likely hand control over censorship to its Chinese partner.

But experts inside China say the company’s efforts to control news deemed unfavourable by the ruling Communist party would need to be as good as the censorship practised by the government itself.

“Facebook would need to satisfy Chinese government demands and be able to adapt to China’s censorship conditions,” said Li Yonghui, head of the international relations institute at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The reported censorship software developed by Facebook would only “solve the most basic problems”, Li added, and although more conditions were still under discussion, “it will definitely contribute to it returning to the Chinese market”.

US internet companies often block content at the behest of government requests in order to comply with local laws. Facebook has removed content for France, Russia and Pakistan.

There is little information on the details of how Facebook’s censorship would work in China but experts agree it would have to pre-empt and predict the government’s needs, rather than simply responding.

“Censorship would clearly have to be automated, keyword based, but that’s imperfect,” Clark said. “If ads or posts from outside China start getting blocked because it’s seen as sensitive by the Chinese government, then it would start to pollute the global Facebook.

“The other way would have Chinese users be second-class citizens, cut off from the site used by the international community, but then what’s the point of using Facebook?”

Even if Facebook jumped through enough hoops to break into the Chinese market, there’s no guarantee it will be successful. Tencent’s WeChat is already ubiquitous in the country and combines many of the features Facebook provides, such as messaging, posting photos and sharing links.

“It’s not just about the firewall, Facebook wouldn’t transform the market overnight because people stick to what they already have and use,” Clark said. “Wechat is integrated with so many aspects of your life in China, domestic companies are simply light years ahead.”

While Facebook is desperate to break into China, officials have far more to lose than gain from allowing the social network that helped organise protests during the Arab Spring into the country’s fenced-off internet.

Facebook declares it is “on a mission to connect the world” but it is hard to achieve that goal when 1.3bn people cannot access it. For the Chinese government it would be a global propaganda coup and help promote the idea of “internet sovereignty” – the idea that states have the right to control how technology affects their citizens.

These ideas and Facebook’s apparent willingness to cooperate with the Chinese government have long alarmed human rights groups. Fears about the company’s moral compass were reignited after reports of its censorship programme.

“There is danger to global users, by virtue of being connected to users in China, the Chinese government can request to see that data,” said Nicholas Bequelin, east Asia director for Amnesty International.

“Facebook then becomes a massive social network for surveillance for the Chinese government.

“The company has larger human rights obligations – it’s not only about finding a clever way to operate in China within extraordinarily restrictive Chinese laws.

“Facebook has the responsibility to carry out due diligence on the potential human rights consequences of entering the Chinese market.”

Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite a personal charm offensive by Zuckerberg – including rumours he asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to name his daughter – the efforts may be in vain as Chinese authorities weigh the potential threat to their grip on power.

“None of that is going to change the fundamental interests of the Communist party and the Chinese state,” Segal, from the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “While Zuckerberg has done many of the right things given the playbook, he cannot fundamentally change those interests.”

Additional reporting by Christy Yao

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Benjamin Haas in Hong Kong, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 30th November 2016 04.14 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010