Entering China to do business is always hard, but it is especially difficult if you are one of the world’s largest social media networks. Facebook is now reportedly developing a censorship tool to stop “sensitive posts” from appearing on news feeds in specific geographical locations. Recently, Mark Zuckerberg has been paying frequent visits to China and meeting with some top government officials. It looks like learning Mandarin is just the tip of Zuckerberg’s iceberg.
Facebook has been quietly developing a censorship tool which will effectively control the posts allowed on timelines in specific locations. Yes, Facebook already does this to an extent, the company has the power to take down posts that are deemed “sensitive.” Between July 2015 and December 2015 it blocked 55,000 posts in 20 different countries. However, this new tool will take that to a whole new level by suppressing posts before they even get onto a news feed.
A number of Facebook employees left the company as a reaction to this new development. The feature was created to help get Facebook into China, a movement defended by Zuckerberg, angry employees told The New York Times.
Will this really “make the world more open and connected?” Well, the company doesn’t intend on blocking the posts itself. The tool is designed to allow a third party to censor and block posts if it wishes to.
Current and former Facebook employees warned The New York Times that much like many of Facebook’s other developments, this technology may never actually see the light of day. The code is visible to the company’s engineers, however there is no indication that this technology has been offered in negotiations with China. Yet.
Zuckerberg has recently spent quite a lot of time in China, meeting with top Communist Party officials to discuss the progress China has recently made with the internet. Coincidence? Definitely not.
Facebook vice president of corporate development Vaughan Smith was also one of many Western tech leaders to attend last week’s World Internet Conference in Wuzhen.
Vaughan Smith of Facebook opens his talk at the China's World Internet Summit with a few words in Chinese. Group deal on lessons? pic.twitter.com/SOwEDTXYOa
— Emily Rauhala (@emilyrauhala) November 17, 2016
Facebook is by no means the first company to grapple with its own morals when entering into the Chinese market. Google was one of the first Silicon Valley companies to take up that challenge. However, the company eventually pulled out of the mainland, due to backlash surrounding the censorship of search results. They now instead direct their users to their service in Hong Kong.
One of the only Western social media networks to successfully make its way into the Chinese market is LinkedIn, the network for professionals, a small proportion of the content is censored, however the network is not seen as host of public debate.
Zuckerberg needs to weigh up his moral obligation against the potential market access. The company currently claims 1.8 billion active users, access to China could potentially boost that number by almost a billion.
The immediate moral conflict facing the company is the issue of freedom of speech. Yes, in the short term, this is a worrying concept for liberal-minded individuals. However, imagine the benefits that a service like Facebook could bring for public discussion in a country like China.
“It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversations,” Zuckerberg said, employees told NY Times.
By Seamus Gibson
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