In what is surely a mere coincidence, at the same time as Facebook has been embroiled in a scandal involving the dissemination of "election tipping" stories, which prompted Zuckerberg to release a 7-point plan to eradicate "fake news" and which many conservatives believe is a preamble toward wholesale banning of so-called "fake news" websites (as arbitrarily defined by an ultra-liberal, Trump-bashing "professor") by the social networks (when ironically, Wikileaks revealed that Google was actively engaged in developing a "strategic plan" to help the Democrats win the election and track voters), we learn that in an attempt to penetrate the Chinese market, Facebook has "quietly" developed a censorship tool to appease China's politburo in hopes the social network will finally get the blessing to address the world's largest market.
According to the NYT, which first reported Facebook's strategy, the social network "has quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas, according to three current and former Facebook employees, who asked for anonymity because the tool is confidential. The feature was created to help Facebook get into China, a market where the social network has been blocked, these people said. Mr. Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort, the people added."
Why would Zuckerberg support an effort that goes fundamentally against the premise of free speech? Why ad revenue, and profits, of course, because while it remains to be seen if organic revenue growth in the rest of the world is topping out, suddenly getting access to the Chinese market means making a compromise unlike any done previously in Facebook's history.
To be sure, Facebook has restricted content in other countries before, such as Pakistan, Russia and Turkey, in keeping with the typical practice of American internet companies that generally comply with government requests to block certain content after it is posted. According to its own data, Facebook blocked roughly 55,000 pieces of content in about 20 countries between July 2015 and December 2015, for example. But the censorship tool in China takes a step further by preventing content from appearing in feeds in China in the first place.
The NYT adds that Facebook does not intend to suppress the posts itself. Instead, it would offer the software to enable a third party — in this case, most likely a partner Chinese company — to monitor popular stories and topics that bubble up as users share them across the social network, the people said. Facebook’s partner would then have full control to decide whether those posts should show up in users’ feeds. In effect, Facebook is willing to admit its sold out its integrity to a third-party Chinese vendor and arbiter, simply to boost revenue, and its stock price (we are confident FB's stock price will rise on the news that the company may be close to penetrating the Chinese market, no matter the cost).
Of course, there is the possibility that once the story becomes public that Facebook is now officially in the censorship game, that it may shelve plans: after all, the last thing Zuckerberg needs now is to be accused not only of spreading "fake news" but of engaging in premeditated censorship due to ideology or bias. The Facebook employees the NYT spoke with cautioned that the software is one of many ideas the company has discussed with respect to entering China and, like many experiments inside Facebook, it may never see the light of day. The feature, whose code is visible to engineers inside the company, has so far gone unused, and there is no indication that Facebook has offered it to the authorities in China. Although, it is hard to imagine why Facebook would spend millions developing such a project if it had no intention of using it.
Worse, the project illustrates the extent to which Facebook may be willing to compromise one of its core mission statements, “to make the world more open and connected,” to gain access to a market of 1.4 billion Chinese people. Even as Facebook faces pressure to continue growing — Mr. Zuckerberg has often asked where the company’s next billion users will come from — China has been cordoned off to the social network since 2009 because of the government’s strict rules around censorship of user content.
But what may be the most interesting part of this story, is that Facebook's creeping censorship may have led to an internal "whistleblower" with a conscience: a Facebook "Snowden: if you will:
Several employees who were working on the project have left Facebook after expressing misgivings about it, according to the current and former employees.
An official statement from the company was non-committal: a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement, “We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country.” She added that the company had made no decisions on its approach into China."
Censorship notwithstanding, Zuckerberg may have trouble breaching the Chinese market even purely on its "redacted" merits: coming at a time when Trump is actively preparing for trade war with China, the last thing Xi Jinping will want to do is make a political concession that grants Facebook market share in China at the expense of protected domestic companies.
Indeed, as NYT adds, the current climate for internet companies in China may not help Facebook. In August, the ride-hailing giant Uber gave up an expensive battle to crack the Chinese market, selling its Chinese business to an incumbent rival, Didi Chuxing. More broadly, China has streamlined and tightened its controls over the internet under President Xi, targeting influential social media celebrities and adding new reviews to popular online video sites.
However, China may allow Facebook to enter, on one condition: that it is used to root out political dissidents, making the social network into a "snitch":
Some officials responsible for China’s tech policy have been willing to entertain the idea of Facebook’s operating in the country. It would legitimize China’s strict style of internet governance, and if done according to official standards, would enable easy tracking of political opinions deemed problematic. Even so, resistance remains at the top levels of Chinese leadership.
Ultimately, what Facebook may end up doing is transforming itself into a mutant, minority version of itself where it keeps a portion of the upside, while letting a bigger partner deal with the local political headache: analysts have said Facebook’s best option is to follow a model laid out by other internet companies and cooperate with a local company or investor. Finding a partner — and potentially allowing it to own a majority stake in Facebook’s China operation — would take the burden of censorship and surveillance off the Silicon Valley company. It would also let Facebook rely on a local company’s government connections and experience to deal with the difficult task of communicating with Beijing, the NYT notes.
Facebook currently sells advertising for some Chinese businesses from its Hong Kong office. Among its customers are state-media sites that act as the propaganda arm of the Chinese government, and that operate official accounts where they post articles. Chinese citizens who wish to gain access to Facebook must tunnel in using a technology known as a virtual private network, or VPN.
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Going back to the censorship tool, it is unclear when it originated, but the project is said to have picked up momentum in the last year, as engineers were plucked from other parts of Facebook to work on the effort, the current and former employees said. The project was led by Vaughan Smith, a vice president for mobile, corporate and business development at Facebook, they said. Like Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr. Smith speaks a smattering of Mandarin.
Unveiling a new censorship tool in China could lead to more demands to suppress content from other countries. The fake-news problem, which has hit countries across the globe, has already led some governments - most notably Germany - to use the issue as an excuse to target sites of political rivals, or shut down social media sites altogether.
Curiously, for whatever reason, several Facebook employees who were working on the suppression tool left the company over the summer. Internally, so many employees asked about the project and its ambitions on an internal forum that, in July, it became a topic at one of Facebook’s weekly Friday afternoon question-and-answer sessions.
Mr. Zuckerberg was at the event and answered a question from the audience about the tool. He told the gathering that Facebook’s China plans were nascent. But he also struck a pragmatic tone about the future, according to employees who attended the session.
“It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation,” Mr. Zuckerberg said, according to employees.
And if Facebook is willing to go the full distance and compromise its core mission statement in China just to pick a few basis points of growth, how long until the social network will do the same in the US, where a witch-hunt against "fake news" unlike any other, has exploded in recent days and which effectively grants Facebook the ability to censor anyone it disagrees with. After all, we now know that the tool is in place - all Zuckerberg has to do is flip a switch.