Internet & Tech

Losing face

Facebook in ethical dilemma over its latest attempt to crack China


Befriending Beijing

When Mark Zuckerberg makes a ‘friend’ request, he doesn’t take no for an answer. The Facebook founder seems determined to partner his social networking site with the Chinese market, launching new charm offensives with each rebuff. But the most recent of his courtship moves may undermine what many see as the company’s core values.

The New York Times reported last month the tech firm has secretly developed software to censor content based on the user’s country of origin. Citing current and former Facebook employees, the newspaper said the feature is confidential. It was designed to help Facebook get into China and Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort

Facebook’s compromise between market expansion and perceived censorship poses a delicate issue for Zuckerberg. The social network has its own “community guidelines” which dictate what content is acceptable under the banner of “free speech”, but it has in the past been swayed to censor posts when requested by various governments.

To maintain transparency, Facebook publishes reports of the censorship requests it receives from government entities. The tool developed for China is different, says the New York Times, because it would allow for a third party to censor content before it goes public. Thus there would be no need to publish government requests to censor the material in question.

Eva Galperin, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group which campaigns for the protection of online privacy, told the BBC the tool could have “tremendous implications for human rights”. Fortune magazine suggests the feature, if implemented, would “open Pandora’s box”, spurring many governments to request similar powers of censorship.

Paradoxically Facebook is facing an outcry in the US for precisely the opposite reason – failing to censor the spread of “fake news” on its site (the impact of which could well have swayed voter in the American presidential election).

This was an irony not lost on the Global Times: “Cracking down on online rumours would confine freedom of speech. Isn’t this what the West advocates when it is at odds with emerging countries over internet management? China’s crackdown on online rumours a few years ago was harshly condemned by the West.”

(China’s law on spreading rumours online was introduced in 2013, allowing people to be charged with defamation if “fabricated” content was viewed over 5,000 times or reposted over 500 times. The rules were widely criticised outside of China for being too vague in definition and too harsh in punishment.)

If Facebook entered China, it would certainly have to discourage the sharing of certain opinions, and its “trusted third party” in this respect would be a government censor, keen to restrict online content deemed too politically sensitive by Beijing.

Some think it is odd that Facebook would be eager to enter a market so at odds with its own ethics, but when questioned by employees about the potential of such censorship tools, Zuckerberg allegedly responded, “It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation.”

But it’s unlikely that Facebook could contribute that significantly to a mass of new conversations in China anyway. Domestically, there are entrenched and more advanced social media platforms already available, specifically WeChat and Sina Weibo. For its current Chinese users (who have to access the site through a VPN), Facebook’s biggest appeal is that it allows them to connect with an international community. So if it introduced a version of its site that worked in China (albeit censored) but which was ring-fenced from the outside world, it would lose its unique selling point for many Chinese users.

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