Should Facebook Self-Censor to Enter the Chinese Market?

A ChinaFile Conversation

The social network Facebook has reportedly developed software to suppress posts from users’ feeds in targeted geographic areas, a feature created to help the giant social media network gain access to China, where it is blocked. Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has long been courting China’s leaders, studying Mandarin, and talking with Chinese Internet executives. How far should he and his company go in order to grow? At what expense? —The Editors


Given China’s increasingly strict Internet censorship, it should surprise no one that any re-entry by Facebook would be conditional not only on the company’s acquiescing to censorship, but on its demonstrating the ability to carry it out to Beijing’s satisfaction. Equally if not even more troubling would be the requirement, all but inevitable, that Facebook store Chinese user data on servers in China, making that data accessible to Chinese courts and law enforcement. Even if Beijing deigns to allow Facebook a presence in China, Facebook will face a firestorm of criticism from human rights and data privacy activists.

It will defend its decision by invoking the same logic that American proponents of engagement have always deployed. Some connectivity is surely better than none, which is essentially what Facebook has today: a tiny, inconsequential handful of China’s over 700 million Internet users are regular users of platforms like Facebook or Twitter. Facebook probably won’t make its case by suggesting that connecting China will bring about political change; it was, after all, suspicion of that sort of thing that got them blocked in the first place. They may instead point to the inherent good in connectedness, and note the evil—mistrust and misunderstanding—that arises in its absence. All this justifies compromise.

Google faced a similar dilemma when it decided to enter China in early 2006. But the moral calculus has shifted in the intervening 11 years. Google may have been viewed with suspicion even then, but now—after various Color Revolutions and Arab Spring uprisings with the names of American Internet properties conveniently appended to them by the American media—Beijing will exact far greater compromise. China blocks far more foreign websites, and blocks them more aggressively, than it did then. Chinese users have excellent alternatives: social media platforms where their friends already are. They aren’t clamoring for Facebook, and those who want it have little trouble hopping the Great Firewall to get to it: nationalists bent on trolling pro-independence Taiwanese celebs hopped the wall in droves this past summer, after all. So Facebook has little leverage to speak of; it will play by Beijing’s rules or not at all.

Indeed, Facebook’s only real card is the public relations value to Beijing of letting the company in: “See? All that nonsense about censorship was clearly overblown.”

But it’s not. One of the regrettable effects of our use of the “Great Firewall” as a metonym for Chinese Internet censorship is that too many people equate censorship with the blocking of sites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In fact, the censorship of domestic Chinese sites is far more onerous, and impacts a far greater number of users. That won’t change with a Facebook entry.

Whatever your posture toward Facebook for its willingness to compromise on freedom of expression in the name of engagement and greater global connectivity, the unblocking of Facebook to users in the People’s Republic of China, should it come to pass, must not be construed in any way as a loosening of censorship.

Facebook shouldn’t do this. Although the tool, as described, copies some industry norms (Facebook would suppress messages inside China, but show them outside), it comes nowhere near what Beijing would demand for re-entry. At the same time, those additional conditions would make any deal not worth the cost, either ethical or financial.

Though the American press often writes as if the principal goal of Chinese censorship is blocking information from America, the Party is far more worried about its own citizens. This is why seemingly innocuous platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr are blocked; it isn’t what American teenagers would post that worries the Cyberspace Administration, and those concerns would shape any Facebook deal as well.

Hiding selected posts from outside China would not meet the bare minimum of Beijing’s requirements for citizen surveillance. Facebook would have to keep data on those users on servers in Beijing, and grant the government direct access. Offending posts by Chinese users would have to be suppressed worldwide, not just in China. (Users in Anqing would not be allowed to share posts about corruption with students in Ann Arbor.)

That’s just the geographic controls. Beijing would probably demand that censorship follow Chinese citizens internationally. They do something like this today with SIM cards, which include data headers that identify country of origin. Chinese SIMs are subjected to Chinese censorship, whether the user is in Dalian or Dusseldorf. (This is why Chinese mobile plans have such advantageous international rates; cheap roaming means users often don’t bother to get local SIM cards, allowing censorship to follow them worldwide.)

And the situation is not static. Under the bland banner of “stability maintenance,” social media regulations have been coordinated, onerous, and monotonically restrictive. The chop would not be dry on any contract with Facebook before it had to be re-negotiated.

Against these costs, the chance that Facebook would be allowed to succeed in China is zero. As Ben Thompson wrote about Uber’s failure,“I’ve simply seen no way that the government tolerates foreign ownership of something as foundational as transportation infrastructure.” That is true of media as well, especially media Chinese citizens use to communicate and coordinate with one another.

Two decades after ICQ launched, there is not one example of foreign social media succeeding here—not Google, not Instagram, not WhatsApp, not Twitter. The closest example, LinkedIn, is a business service with no threat of wide adoption, and has roughly the same number of users in China and the U.K., a market 5 percent its size. Even Apple, selling a luxury product whose software cannot be separated from its hardware, has not been able to maintain its online services—China blocks iTunes, iBooks, and News.

The Party appears convinced—correctly, in my view—that freedom of speech and assembly threaten single-party rule. In addition, censorship is a good source of mercantile protection. The idea that politics differs from economics does not resonate strongly in Beijing; the ability to provide a competitive advantage to local firms is a political tool, offering the very entrepreneurs who might push for global connectivity the consolation prize of the largest market in the world.

I understand why Facebook wants this. They have traded as a growth stock since 2012, but user acquisition is slowing. Access to China would allow them to postpone that reckoning by a few years. But any Chinese presence would be token, negotiated more to reduce an irritant than to allow real access. The “Some conversation is better than no conversation” argument Facebook has been making for years now simply wouldn’t hold up under terms demanded by the Party.

Though it’s been evident for years that Mark Zuckerberg really, really wants Facebook to operate in China, I’m genuinely surprised that the company appears, finally, to have made the decision to do it.

I’m surprised for two big reasons:

  1. Facebook will have to facilitate Chinese spying on non-Chinese users.

    To operate in China, Facebook will have to comply not only with the Communist Party’s onerous censorship demands, but with its user surveillance requirements as well. Through a multi-layered latticework of necessary operating licenses, the Chinese authorities require social networks and providers of messaging services—Facebook is both—to be willing and able to turn over user data, including account details and the contents of posts and private communications.

    Doing the bidding of China’s state security apparatus will put Facebook in a position of collaboration that goes far beyond what any prominent American tech company has agreed to. The contrast with Google is instructive. In 2006, Google entered China as a search engine—an “Internet content provider,” in the taxonomy of Chinese regulators—but deliberately excluded from its China-licensed sites any services that entailed individual user data or private communications. In that way, Google subjected its China-directed search engine to censorship requirements, but avoided any obligation to comply with surveillance requests from a government prone to human rights violations. (Beyond an abstract revulsion at the prospect of assisting political persecution, we had watched with horror the imprisonment of Chinese journalist Shi Tao after Yahoo’s Hong Kong subsidiary handed over to Beijing the contents of his email account.)

    But that’s not even the worst of it. The very nature of a social network means that updates and communications written by non-Chinese users will become visible to Chinese security services. A Facebook user’s newsfeed is the set of updates and shares posted by her/his friends, including many written by friends-of-friends. If a non-Chinese user has a Chinese friend—or, given how Facebook works, even a Chinese friend of a non-Chinese friend—anything that non-Chinese user posts to Facebook could potentially be read by Chinese state security. Likewise, if a Chinese user likes or comments on a post by a non-Chinese user, that entire thread becomes attached to the Chinese user’s account, and thus subject to Chinese governmental examination.

    Because of the permeable, fluid, and semi-public sharing dynamics inherent to Facebook, I can think of no technical or policy means by which the company’s Chinese subsidiary could shield non-Chinese users’ posts, comments, likes, and shares from disclosure to Chinese state security.

  2. There is little chance Facebook can actually succeed in China.

    Even if the Chinese government would permit a foreign tech company to win in a space as important as social networking (and past experience strongly indicates it will not), Chinese users have exhibited strong disinterest in local Facebook knock-offs, and there is little reason to think a foreign player will fare any better.

    From eBay to Amazon to Google to Uber, the Chinese government’s initial red-carpet welcomes to Silicon Valley companies have invariably morphed into grinding wars of attrition in which local competitors collude with officials and regulators to ensure the foreigners’ long-term market failure. Plus, Facebook will have to risk surrendering a large degree of control over its Chinese service to whatever local partner ends up owning 51 percent of the licensed Chinese entity, as required by Chinese law. The experiences of other Silicon Valley entrants indicate that those kinds of joint ventures most often end in frustration and acrimony. (It’s plausible, but too early to conclude, that LinkedIn will prove the exception to that rule.)

I’m surprised, in short, that Facebook would risk sparking outrage and reputational damage among its non-Chinese users (for crossing a line of collaboration that would render their posts, comments, likes, shares, and private messages vulnerable to Chinese government spying) in order to take a crack at a market in which it’s highly unlikely to succeed.

Facebook would not be the first multinational corporation to surrender to the unaccountable and arbitrary authoritarian Chinese Communist Party state. The European Union, the home of Amnesty International and Doctors without Borders, has stopped promoting motions to investigate the Peoples Republic of China’s systemic violation of fundamental human rights at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. E.U. governments, to court economic deals with China, no longer will respectfully host the Dalai Lama. Don’t E.U. governments seem to wink at their firms when those firms violate the ban on weapons sales to China?

Doesn’t the evidence suggest that China is winning on getting democracies to surrender their values in order to benefit from the dynamism of the P.R.C. economy, including Chinese investors, and not only in Trump properties, Chinese tourists and Chinese importers?

Isn’t China going to win on the issue of national control of the web?

Isn’t Facebook merely accepting this trend which leads company executives to conclude that their business cannot compete globally if it does not have a presence in the China market, which means playing by anti-democratic C.C.P. rules?

Isn’t this Facebook move into China a reflection of how much, in our age, as in the 1920s, liberal democracy is in trouble and neo-fascist forces are winning, and not only in the P.R.C.?
Might not Facebook’s behavior auger something large and significant about where the world is heading?

Does anyone expect the U.S. president-elect to promote human rights in dealings with the C.C.P., except, perhaps, on abortion and religion?

Here’s a nice irony. After claiming that he had no responsibility to prevent Facebook being used to spread insidious false information that helped distort the American presidential election, Zuckerberg is now busily telling Chinese authorities that he can supply them the means to prevent Facebook being used to spread insidious true information in their country. Of course he was never honest about Facebook’s actual responsibilities toward the American public—only Facebook was in a position to know that the sites spreading the most damaging information were associated with a very small number of IP clusters, and only Facebook could have informed readers of this important fact. In the case of China, this is the precise information (along with much else) that Facebook will supply. The dodge is that Facebook will not be doing any censoring—just like it did no censoring in the U.S. It will only provide Chinese government and government-contracted censors the means to penetrate Facebook protocols and do the filtering themselves.

Zuckerberg can assume the pose of neutrality and lack of responsibility all he wants, but the facts are becoming clear: He has been a tool of far-right activists (and Internet pirates exploiting far-right activism) in the U.S., and now he is offering himself as a tool to the Chinese government—and after the recent promulgation of new cybersecurity measures in China, into which Facebook would have to be initiated, this is even more clear. Zuckerberg has also made Facebook instantly obsolete. Political activists in the U.S. do not need Facebook now, since they have achieved many of their goals and can rapidly exploit more fashionable venues. And China already has a lot of tools just like Facebook; one more is of limited interest. Facebook will gradually deteriorate as a platform of the unverifiable and the sensational in the U.S., and in China it will linger on the margins of social media platforms that are already well adapted to the conditions of Internet operation there.

The problem for the rest of us is, now that Zuckerberg knows well the rewards both of massive data mining of social media and of obsequious opportunism toward governments or political movements, to what further level of collaboration will he migrate? I agree with the suggestions above that while Facebook cannot seriously compete in China, it can offer the Chinese government and corporations a few new avenues for monitoring individuals and groups outside of China. A bigger business is the spread of false or distorted information serving the purposes of governments, political movements, corporations, religious organizations, and mercenary educational enterprises. The special advantage that the Facebook model provides is the rapid circulation, quoting, echoing, and blowback, the total effect of which is to produce what many readers think is verification. This has a potential (indeed has already done it) to infect vulnerable established media, including major newspapers and video channels worldwide. Zuckerberg is in a position to peddle recursion systems like these for popular confusion—never becoming a censor or a propagandist himself.

Common wisdom is that a “harmonized” Facebook may be of limited interest to the general Chinese user. China’s hundreds of millions of netizens are already attached to local chat apps such as Tencent’s WeChat and QQ, payment platforms such as Alipay, social media such as Sina Weibo, and live-streaming apps such as Inke and Miaopai. While it’s possible Facebook could carve out more than just a specialized niche of the China market by creating superior products that are localized and marketed even better than these domestic offerings, it will undoubtedly be a difficult challenge.

As Clay Shirky alludes to with his discussion of “geographic controls,” among the myriad challenges facing Facebook is how effective their intended censorship for China-based users would be and how they actually plan to implement and enforce such censorship. In an increasingly globalized world, where Chinese users travel abroad and foreigners visit China in ever increasing numbers, the difficulties of managing a system that consistently and effectively applies different kinds of censorship for different citizens—including those who are transnational users like business travelers, students studying abroad, and immigrants—is multiplied.

To see just how difficult these “territorialization” concerns that Facebook faces are, one can look at how domestic Chinese companies have confronted the issue. In a months-long project, we investigated how WeChat implements a system for censoring chat content in its app for Chinese users as compared to international users. Our recent report, reveals that Chinese Internet giant Tencent has adopted a non-transparent “One App, Two Systems” model on WeChat to differentiate censorship on China accounts from international accounts. Keyword filtering is enabled only for accounts registered to mainland China phone numbers. In turn, these mainland registrants are locked into additional censorship regardless of where they travel, even if they link their account with another phone number. Moreover, certain politically sensitive websites are consistently blocked to these same users—but not for international registrants.

As Ron Deibert, Director of The Citizen Lab says,

Days are long gone when we used to interact with the Internet as an undifferentiated network. The reality today is that what we communicate online is mediated by companies that own and operate the Internet services we use. Social media in particular have become, for an increasing number of people, windows on reality. Whether, and in what ways, those windows might be distorted—by corporate policies or government directives—is thus a matter of significant public importance, but not always easy to discern with the naked eye.

If Facebook does enter into China, we hope that any content restrictions imposed are transparent and publicly accessible by all. This is not just for the sake of its own users but hopefully also to set a precedent for other technology-media companies operating in China—be they other foreign ones like LinkedIn or domestic ones like WeChat.

This post was co-authored by Lotus Ruan, Jeffrey Knockel, and Masashi Crete-Nishihata, who, with Jason Q. Ng, also authored the report “One App, Two Systems: How WeChat Uses One Censorship Policy in China and Another Internationally,” produced by The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs.

Kaiser makes the point at the outset here that “the unblocking of Facebook to users in the People’s Republic of China, should it come to pass, must not be construed in any way as a loosening of censorship.” I agree with that point wholeheartedly, and also with the point made by others that an acquiescent Facebook re-entry into China would almost certainly expose not just Chinese users but their extended networks of non-Chinese friends, to unwarranted prying and information gathering.

Censorship, whether done directly by Facebook or through a Chinese partner is, of course, a non-negotiable—and China will dictate the terms, so that even transparency about that censorship is probably a no-go. When China’s former cyberspace chief, Lu Wei, visited the U.S. two years ago, Zuckerberg made a show of placing Xi Jinping’s book, The Governance of China, on his desk. It’s possible, then, that he’s read the relevant section on Internet governance: “Doing proper online public opinion work is a long-term program, and we must innovate and improve online propaganda . . . firmly grasping the timeliness, degree and effect of online public opinion channeling, so that the online space becomes bright and clear.” All that gobbledygook means the Chinese Communist Party will restrict and direct information, and it’s sharing and access, in real time so as to preserve its own interests over and against those of Internet users. This year, of course, Xi’s words were much harder even. All media, he said, including social media, must be “surnamed Party,” meaning they must serve and protect the Party’s interests. Which is to say that Facebook will be in a position not just to passively acquiesce, but to actively enable.

But beyond the issue of content censorship in China, we need to recognize the content of China’s views on Internet governance and cyber sovereignty as they are being packaged and sold to a global audience. China’s leaders seek to legitimize draconian restrictions on the Internet at home (which, as others have pointed out here, have an international dimension already) by pushing an extreme version of cyber sovereignty, which it regards as its own important contribution to theories of national sovereignty. They have already successfully pushed the inclusion of the language of “multilateralism” in international documents providing the framework for Internet governance.

China will continue to push for a greater sovereignty over Internet governance, and Facebook’s re-entry into China would be a huge public relations boost for Xi Jinping’s Internet management model. That boost has actually already begun inside China. Zuckerberg was given a rare headline appearance on the front page of the People’s Daily after he met with former propaganda chief Liu Yunshan in March. That article said that Xi Jinping’s vision for global Internet development, including cyber sovereignty, had “received widespread approval.”