What is Facebook willing to do to get into China?

Facebook is reported to have created a tool to allow a third party to censor its content – with an eye to finding a way into the Chinese market.

Ted S. Warren/Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) talks with Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg (R) as China's top Internet regulator Lu Wei (L) looks on, during a gathering of CEOs and other executives at Microsoft's main campus in Redmond, Washington on September 23, 2015.

Seeking a route to break into an untapped market of 1.4 billion people in China, Facebook may be exploring a third-party censorship tool to block certain posts in the country, compromising one of its core principles to grow its social media empire.

China blocked access to the social network in 2009, deeming it a violation of the country’s strict policies on censorship and creation of online, user-generated content. Several employees spoke to The New York Times anonymously about a new tool the company has begun building that would allow censorship of certain posts before they appear, a feature that could make the site more appealing to governments that take a heavy-handed approach to censorship in their digital spheres.

The company hasn’t officially announced or unveiled any new technologies that would bridge that gap.

“We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country,” Debbie Frost, a Facebook spokeswoman, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “However, we have not made any decision on our approach to China. Our focus right now is on helping Chinese businesses and developers expand to new markets outside China by using our ad platform.”

Sources told the Times that Facebook has been working on software that would block posts from appearing in news feeds linked to specified geographic areas by allowing a third party, such as a Chinese partner company, to scan the network for popular posts that violate Chinese standards and block them.  

While the company has publicly championed free speech, Facebook has also previously restricted content in Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey, acquiescing to the cultural and legal demands of foreign nations. Yet it has also received backlash for censoring or blocking content that violated its guidelines but served an important public interest in countries where free speech is a protected right.  

In September, the company came under fire after it blocked an iconic Vietnam War photo, citing child nudity as a justification for censorship. Espen Egil Hansen, the editor at Norway’s largest newspaper, which published the photo, decried the practice.

"If you wish to increase the real understanding between human beings, you have to offer more liberty in order to meet the entire width of cultural expressions and discuss substantial matters," Mr. Hansen wrote in an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. "Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor."

Facebook issued an apology for blocking the photo, vowing to revamp its algorithms to prevent similar instances in the future.

Mr. Zuckerberg has spent time learning basic Mandarin, visiting with internet officials in China, and cultivating a friendly relationship with President Xi Jinping. So far, those efforts have resulted in an advertising partnership between Chinese companies and the social media site, but those in the company say the nation and Facebook aren’t close to striking a deal on civilian usage.

Sources close to the project say that Zuckerberg has supported and defended the censorship initiative, despite its apparent clash with Facebook’s ideals to “make the world more open and connected.”

“It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation,” Zuckerberg said in an internal meeting over the summer, unnamed employees told the Times.

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